On Thursday, just a couple of days ago, I stayed around the apartment all morning washing clothes and getting ready for my trip to Jordan. In the afternoon, though, I took part in a turtle release — something new and very satisfying.
My friend Jane volunteers at the turtle rescue center in Glyfada, an upscale neighborhood of Athens, right on the water. I’ve heard her talk about this for a year, but this was my first time there, and I suspect it won’t be my last.
Volunteerism is such a new idea in Greece. Such organizations don’t have an easy time of it, either. From what I could see, this one manages — with barebones equipment and donated buildings. There are several train cars that were donated, and these have been fashioned into an office, a teaching space, a living space, a giftshop, and the like. The “hospital” tanks are under a kind of Quonset hut structure, and the tanks where turtles go when they’re healthier are outdoors. Then there are a couple of tanks where they go just before they are released.
I didn’t realize that Greece has 3 kinds of turtles — green, loggerhead, and leatherback. Two of these nest in Greece — the green and loggerhead. Most of the turtles rescued here are loggerhead turtles, though right now there is one green.
Turtles come here from all over Greece. All have been injured in some way — many deliberately by people. The turtle being released this time, for example, had been hit in the head probably by some kind of tool on a boat. The injury was right between the eyes on the top of the head, a deep wound that has healed now but which still leaves a clear indentation where the damage was. She was supposed to be released on Wednesday but this was delayed for a day because of an emergency — a new male was brought in with a nail in his head. I saw him with it removed, but saw the x-ray and was horrified. Some turtles, like the smallest one there, had some other problem or illness. The small turtle had been born with a weak flipper and wasn’t able to migrate with the rest — it was found in winter and is now almost ready for release.
Every day begins with feeding and observations. Someone records constantly for each turtle — feeding notes, notes about how often the turtle moves or swims, notes about all sorts of things. Most of the workers are either non-paid volunteers or European Union interns from any number of countries. There is a director. And there is the guy who runs the center and works very hard — not a biologist at all, but someone who began as a volunteer out of his own interest and who has learned what he knows from study and reading — and hands-on work.
The release I was part of was quite moving. We took her to the beach where she was rescued, an hour or so down the coast toward Cape Sunion. Another turtle had been released there perhaps two weeks earlier, and in those intervening two weeks, a touristy set of umbrellas and beach lounges — and a cantina — had popped up. Nevertheless, the release continued. We kept curious beachgoers at a distance as the turtle was first taken out of her box and then found her own way to the water. I must admit that I was very moved by watching her dive right in. As she moved fairly quickly out away from the shore, though, she seems to surface more often than usual for a while. More experienced volunteers were concerned; apparently this is not a good thing. She finally stopped surfacing, however, and we turned away when we couldn’t see her anymore. For a short while we were worried about the motorboat that reved up and headed toward her direction. Motorboats cause a lot of injuries, clearly, with the blades of the motors. This boat, to our relief, moved away from the turtle, and we felt safe.
After we left the beach, we went back to the rescue center and put together a late dinner of olives and feta, bread and wine. Some chicken and sausages cooked on a grill but I was quite full with the mezedes. After good conversation and laughter, we left. I was home in my apartment by 12:3o on Friday morning.
I’ll go back. I’m already thinking of donating some equipment — the center clearly is running on a barebones budget. I may volunteer there some myself.