Becoming a “conservationist”
Becoming a “conservationist” - Eight years with sea turtles, a tent and a wonderful team.
Since I was 18, I had been working in a transport company shipping parcels into a world that I had seen very little of myself. After 9 years in my job, I decided to take a summer’s break and explore Europe. I had fallen in love with Greece already during a holiday some years before, so when I found the opportunity to volunteer for ARCHELON, this seemed like the perfect place to start my adventure. I quit my job, my flat and the security of home and travelled to Greece.
On the first day in the project, in May 2009, I walked into the Zakynthos campsite. I knew nothing about sea turtles, biology or conservation and words like “monitoring”, “PA” or “tagging” had no meaning to me, even after I had translated them into my language. Only a week later, I held my first presentation to 30 tourists about the sea turtles of Zakynthos, and after another week I had learned to identify the features in the sand, that tell us the what the turtles have done the previous night. The beautiful olive grove had become my new home and my fellow volunteers my temporary family. When three months later I hugged them goodbye, I had learned more than in all the previous years, not only about turtles and conservation in the field, but about teamwork, friendship and about myself.
My travel adventure continued and when one year later, my winter job in a hotel finished and ARCHELON asked me if I want to come back to Zakynthos as a field leader I could not have been happier.
Once again, we built the camp, assembled the Information Kiosk, set up the presentations in hotels and on boats and waited full of excitement for the first nest. But something was different than last year: The crisis had hit Greece; I found many businesses that I knew from the year before closed down and everyone I spoke to was worried about the future. Also for us the situation was difficult. ARCHELON’s work is mainly sponsored by donations, and in order to continue our important monitoring and public awareness work with limited funds for transport and equipment, we walked or cycled wherever possible, introduced double-shifts to reduce transport and spent hours fixing tape measures and projectors. I was absolutely amazed how these new challenges made the team spirit grow and how the volunteers motivated each other even during long and demanding shifts.
The next years, I continued as a field leader in Zakynthos, and saw the organization grow: They built new relationships, introduced new technologies, opened new PA venues, updated conservation protocols and enhanced their self-concept as an NGO that plays a role on an international level. At the same time, I grew into my new position and learned to handle every challenge that would come up.
But something that never faded is my astonishment about what volunteers are capable of. Still now, after eight years, I love to watch the smile on their face when they speak with the public, sharing their experience and love for their work. It still touches my heart when they welcome a new team member into the camp, or sit down together to help each other prepare for their first presentation. I still feel thankful, when they come into the office to see if they can help. Their enthusiasm despite their hard work, their professionalism despite their young age, and their openness towards people of all backgrounds, ages and cultures motivated me every day to give my best. I always felt, that the most important part of my job was to make volunteers find confidence in themselves and to give them the knowledge and training to develop to their full potential, as a shift leader, as a presenter and most importantly as a person.
During my eight years in ARCHELON, my team and I have trained almost 1,000 volunteers, we have protected almost 8,000 turtle nests that produced over 5,000,000 hatchlings and we educated around 300,000 people about sea turtle conservation.
Until 2009, before I knew what “public awareness” meant, I thought that conservation depends only on politicians and on laws. And then I learned, that every person can play an important role in it and that its basis is the public’s knowledge, understanding and appreciation which we can achieve by communication.
Until 2009, before I learned to read turtle tracks in the sand, I thought that information about animals is generated by really clever scientists with fancy equipment. And then I saw the valuable conclusions that ARCHELON had drawn from information collected by volunteers with measuring tapes, a book, a pen and their eyes.
Until 2009, before I was a part of the ARCHELON team, I heard people say that humans are greedy and will destroy nature until the human race will go extinct. And then I spoke with so many kind people during PA venues and in the streets of Zakynthos, who thought that the conservation work we do is so valuable that they decided to support us – by making a donation or by respecting the management measures for the protection of the area.
Until 2009, before I stepped onto the train towards Greece, I only knew conservationists from documentaries on TV, and thought I would never meet one in person. And now I realize that I am one myself.
I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who has made the past eight years the most amazing experience of my life and helped me to learn, to grow and to love every single day of it: My project leaders for being my mentors and my inspiration, my fellow field leaders for being great friends, the staff of ARCHELON for support and advice, the people of Zakynthos for their helpfulness and hospitality, and all previous volunteers for motivation and support. And finally to ARCHELON as an organization, that believes anyone can participate in the protection of the environment, independent of their background, their age, their job or education. All of you will always have a place in my heart.
Zakynthos Project, 2009-2016