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GREEN VOLUNTEERING IN EUROPE

As an alternative travel option, volunteering for conservation projects is a fantastic way to spend a holiday contributing to something worthwhile, seeing endangered species in the wild, meeting interesting people from all over the world and traveling to beautiful and unique areas. Many people do not realize that there are several wildlife and conservation projects throughout Europe working with endangered species and spaces. One week is often enough but I have met many volunteers who spend their entire summer or longer working with these projects. Green Volunteers - the world guide to voluntary work in nature conservation is a guide listing hundreds of these organizations and projects working throughout the world with a significant number of projects in Europe. As assistant editor for Green Volunteers, I had the opportunity last summer to visit and volunteer for a few of the conservation projects in the Mediterranean.

The Tethys Research Institute (based in Milan) has launched several cetacean projects, three of which I was able to join last summer: the Mediterranean Fin Whale Project and SLOPE (Squid-Loving-Odontocetes ProjEct) working simultaneously in the Ligurian Sea (the part of the Mediterranean sea along the coasts of Italy, Monaco and France) and the Adriatic Dolphin Project in Croatia, now working under a local conservation organization called Blue World. With the first two projects, our group of 10 volunteers and five crew spent our days scanning the horizon for whale sightings. I was completely overwhelmed by the experience of seeing, in the wild and up close, sperm whale (Physeter catadon), fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus) and striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) as well as swordfish, moonfish, tuna fish, sea turtles and puffins. The first thrill was to see the sperm whale. We watched it swim right alongside us, weaving along the surface of the water with serpentine fluidity before diving deep into the sea, flag poling its fluke (tail) in the air for a final image. But everyday was unique and exciting, whether it was a group of approximately 40 of the rare Risso's dolphins, several with young calves, leaping and swimming all around our boat or a fin whale, one of the largest whale species in the world swimming alongside us and practically dwarfing our 66-foot motor-sailer. At night we docked in various bays and ports and the researchers would give us slide presentations and discuss their research or we would go into some of the towns along the coast. We slept on the boat where we were rocked into a contented sleep under the stars.

The Adriatic Dolphin Project studies bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the island of Cres. The researchers take the volunteers out on a small motorized boat to help with the dolphin sitings. One day that I went out on the boat we observed a group of perhaps six or seven adult individuals and one calf. The small boat was fantastic for getting very close to the animals and floating silently as they swim around you. Another large component of this project is making public awareness programs for school children and tourists. Also on the island is the Griffon Vulture Project run out of a very impressive interpretive center. There is a small but growing population of these endangered birds that nest on the cliffs here and the project works to rehabilitate any injured or sick individuals. From the center there are marked trails that highlight the flora while leading you to tiny nearby villages. The islands of Croatia are beautiful and I spent my recreation hours swimming, hiking and sightseeing.

I was also able to visit a couple of projects in Greece. These projects are very affordable for the low budget traveler because the volunteers stay in their own tents and pay a small daily food allowance. Pilos Lagoon Chameleon Project is trying to study and protect one of the last populations in the world of the African chameleon (Chamaeleo africanus), which may not even exist in its native Egypt anymore and why it occurs in this one small lagoon in Greece is unknown. This beautiful lizard displays colors of emerald and turquoise and intricate black speckling continuously changing like a kaleidoscope, which makes it very desired by the pet trade. ARCHELON is an organization working to study, protect and rehabilitate the various species of sea turtle that nest on the beaches of Greece.

Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) were nesting when I came to visit the ARCHELON projects on the islands of Zakynthos and Crete. The work was hard but so rewarding. The earliest shift is hatchling watch starting at 5:00 am to walk the length of the beach and ensure that any late hatchlings make it to the water before the sun rises and they become disorientated and heat exhausted. For me this was one of the most exciting jobs because you see the turtles. A hatchling is only a few inches long and one can't help but cheer it on as it struggles its way over rocks and beach debris and feel complete satisfaction when it finally gets grabbed up by a wave and taken out to sea. Other duties with these projects may involve providing tourist information or doing nest surveys. But there is also a lot of time to just lie in the sun, go for a swim or visit the towns with their many shops and restaurants.

All of the projects have to confront pollution and habitat-loss issues; they must invest energy in educating tourists and working with local communities and governments to work towards conservation programs to protect these endangered species. The efforts made by these groups are done largely with little or no funding and must rely heavily upon volunteers to provide labor and revenue. There are projects all over Europe where you will find extremely dedicated and prepared researchers. The cost that is sometimes required is often much less that what is requested by similar projects offered by American organizations. I cannot think of a better way to do something different and make a difference with my vacation time.


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