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A Turtle Nurse

My current job is pretty awesome, to say the least. I sometimes feel like I work in Jurassic Park…but in a much safer way. I volunteer with sea turtles.

Inside Archelons sea turtle rescue centre in Athens, six big tanks outside and a greenhouse with 20 small tanksFour weeks ago, I arrived in Athens, where Archelon, an NGO protecting sea turtles, has a Rescue Center. On my first day there was already a new turtle, who was dropped off by a fisherman, and a turtle with a severe head injury had passed. Usually, we pick up turtles from the airport, port, or bus station that are sent to us via the turtle rescue network. We named the new turtle Spidey. We clean turtles with sponges and toothbrushes and the first toothbrush we could find that morning had Spiderman on it. Little Spidey has a fishing line coming out of his mouth, after an Xray we know that there is no hook inside him. After he is cleaned, we put him in a clean tank with fresh water to kill any possible parasites on or in him. All turtles are put in separate tanks filled with salt water that comes from and goes back to the sea.

After Spidey was taken care of I got my first task, take out Thalia, a bigger turtle, and clean her and her tank. We always take out bigger turtles with two or sometimes even three people – our heaviest turtle weighs over 70kg! Thalia lives in one of the 20 tanks in our greenhouse. To clean her, we take her out of her tank, put her in a box, and take her outside. We pit wet gauze on the turtles eyes so they don’t dry out and are protected from the harsh sunlight.

On my second day the vet came and showed me how to do drips and give injections to the turtles. I was slightly overwhelmed/terrified to say the least, but I’d do anything to help the turtles feel better. I’d rise to the challenge! A few days later, another volunteer showed me how to do the treatments on healing wounds like amputations. I’m basically a turtle nurse. And, like the nurses I know, we take on more than we should, work hard, but still love our job.

treating a loggerhead turtle post operation on espohagus in his tankBefore the end of the week, it was already my turn to sleep at the rescue center. Two volunteers sleep at the rescue center each night. It is combined with the late and early shift, which extends the day to day turtle work like washing the towels we use for the turtles, cleaning up, and doing the tube feed. There I was, feeding two small and two big turtles with a tube going own their throats…a tube that I had to put down their throat. I don’t think I learned this much in any other first week of school, uni, or work.

Some turtles are tube-fed to give them medication or food supplements like calcium on top of the injections. Spidey, for example, gets laxatives and lube to help him poop out the fishing line naturally, as an operation means a greater recovery time for the animals. Other turtles are tube-fed because they don’t eat. We have Maria who has a heavy head injury and a nasty broken jaw. Reptiles are extremely adaptable and Maria’s jaw will grow back together, we just don’t know if she will gain full movement again. Other turtles are with us because they had to recover from an amputation, usually due to a fishing net cutting off circulation from a flipper.

Little Zena the green turtle shows a healed wound of an amputated flipperLittle Zena is our only green sea turtle at the center, as loggerheads are more common because they nest in Greece. Zena is recovering from an amputation of one of her front flippers, but she is doing so well that she is going to be released next week or so. The little turtles like Zena are released from a boat, as it’s safer for them. The big ones are released on a beach, where we watch them crawl into the water. loggerhead turtle crawling on beach into the waterAll our turtles injuries are caused by humans, either directly (like Maria’s broken jaw from an ax) or indirectly by fishing and plastic.

What I’m trying to say is, please consume fish and plastic responsibly and dispose of it correctly that’s the first step to helping the turtles. If that’s not enough for you, there are adoptions of turtles or volunteers like me. They also have beach projects where you protect the nesting areas. You can find more at archelon.gr. And if you’re in Athens on holidays, come visit the rescue center!

Sophia Z.

If you like my adventures, there’s more to see of them on my insta, youtube, and, if you speak German, my travel blog.

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