01/08/2023

Interview with a volunteer: Lea Heinen, Rescue Centre

Interview with a volunteer: Lea Heinen, Rescue Centre

“I think when a turtle starts to eat after a month of trying, when you can see the improvement or healing of a turtle's injury and when a turtle is released back into the sea, into its natural habitat, into its home - then you know that you are indeed saving turtles”

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Who are you?

Hello, my name is Lea Heinen and I am from Luxembourg. I am 20 years old now and when I started the volunteering project, I was only 19 years old. Some people in Greece used to say I was still a child, which was kind of true.

How did you end up volunteering for ARCHELON?

After graduating from high school, I didn't really know what I wanted to do in life, what I wanted to study, where I wanted to go - no idea. Since I also had a lot of stress in my final year, I got to a point where I made a promise to take care of myself and do things I enjoy and give myself a break from studying. I decided to take a gap year. First, I worked and travelled and finally I applied to volunteer with ARCHELON through the European Solidarity Corps.

Why ARCHELON? Well, why not? I discovered working with sea turtles through a friend and I thought that would be cool. I did some research and came across a few volunteer projects with animals. I knew immediately that I wanted to apply to ARCHELON, and I did! I really liked the website and all the information I was given; this made my decision easier. You receive comprehensive information and as such are well prepared for your experience before you arrive and that was also one thing that put me at ease.

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Did the project meet your expectations?

Although I had already received a lot of information, I was not sure how things would evolve or if my expectations would be met. I knew that I would go there for myself, to experience something new, to face challenges and to get out of my comfort zone for three months. When I first thought about working with ARCHELON, I expected that I would feed the turtles and maybe assist with treatments. I also tried to imagine what life would be like outside the Rescue Centre, whether I would make new friends and experience things with them. Finally, I didn't even have to worry about that as this special place brings together such extraordinary and kind people with big hearts. I didn't expect it to turn out so well! Already on the day of my arrival, everyone was so welcoming and nice to me. I made friends with everyone, among them some very good ones. We shared many beautiful moments, laughed together, cried together, and danced together. On the one hand it was hard work, but on the other hand it was so much fun because we worked as a team. I wasn't wrong about my idea of the work, it was mainly cleaning tanks and turtles, preparing food, feeding turtles, giving tours and in our last week we even got to assist with treatments or give injections ourselves. So, work was very varied, and every day was a little different which I enjoyed. Also, the location is perfect – you can go to Athens whenever you want, visit some Islands, or take the bus somewhere else.

What did you learn? What was unexpected? I have learned a lot, whether it was about turtles themselves or simply the different cultures and behaviors of fellow humans. Every aspect of the work was interesting, the thing that shocked me the most is that all the injuries to the animals were inflicted by humans. The main injuries are head and carapace injuries. Some turtles are missing flippers, and some have a lung infection. Some have had their heads smashed in with hammers or nails, and the carapace injuries are usually caused by a boat hitting them. The reason for the missing flippers is often fishing lines that simply cut off the flippers. Lung infections are caused by swallowing a hook or by possible head injuries, so that the turtles no longer find their natural way and stay too long in cold water. When I was there, we had a total of 25 turtles, two of them were missing a flipper, over half had a head and/or shell injury and some of them had lung infections. I have also learned that it is only the females that come out of the water to lay their eggs, otherwise they stay in the water. They come ashore at night, later in the evening or early in the morning. This is because it is quieter on the beaches, as there are people there during the day. Another reason is the sun, which would burn them on very hot days. As soon as the turtle is out of the water, she immediately starts digging her nest, which can be 1m deep. Then she lays about 115 eggs, out of those eggs usually about 70 will hatch. There are reasons for this: firstly, some hatchlings are too weak to make it out of the egg; secondly, not all of the eggs are fertilized.

But, for the successful hatchlings there are bigger concerns. One is that predators like birds will prey on them, if they catch them on their way to the sea. The other one is much more serious: In fact, the baby turtles find their way to the sea by moonlight, as they are attracted to bright reflections of the moonlight on the water surface. Nowadays, with all the bars, cafes, restaurants, and clubs along the beaches, many of the baby turtles are attracted by artificial lights, get confused and go in the wrong direction. It is only 1 in 1000 that makes it to adulthood. This means that the chances for them are very slim, and that's why I think the work that is done at the ARCHELON Rescue Centre is even more important!

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What was the highlight of your journey with ARCHELON?

I think one of my most beautiful moments was when the turtle “Malebi” began to eat when I fed her. We tried many times and then one day she suddenly started eating and I kept cutting fish for her because she wouldn't stop eating. When I left the Rescue Centre, it was time to release her. I had tears in my eyes watching her swim away on the video my friends sent me! I think when a turtle starts to eat after a month of trying, when you can see the improvement or healing of a turtle's injury and when a turtle is released back into the sea, into its natural habitat, into its home - then you know that you are indeed saving turtles. I could go on and on with things I’ve learned but if you want to experience this, then you have to go there yourself! Trust me, you will have a great time, so you can also volunteer with ARCHELON here.

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