Thursday, May 30, 2013

Goodbye Kaylyn!

     Today was Kaylyn's last day... very bittersweet! Sad for us staying in Lampedusa, but sweet for her - she's on her way to tour Eastern Europe to finish off an incredible semester and summer in Europe. She has done her share of convincing me that I have just GOT to do something like it before I'm done with college. We had our typical cold pasta at the beach, her last Italian gelato, and a great aperitivo. She's not planning on sleeping tonight - we're all going out and helping her pack at 3 AM before she leaves at 5 AM... wish us luck!


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Squirt - first official release!

     Today was my first official sea turtle release! We were aboard a Guardia Costiera boat (which had picked up 80 Algerian immigrants the day before). The reason we had to do this release out at sea was because the turtle of the day was only a year old - too small to just leave on the beach. The boat was incredible and the coast guard were enthusiastic and lively - most of the men were pretty young (the military is probably one of the few stable and non-nepotist jobs available to Italian youth). Luckily, the Center has a great cooperative relationship with the local coast authorities. Seeing little Squirt swim away was one of the best feelings! Such a beautiful experience.
     There was also a BBC documentary filmmaker aboard the boat, filming some of the Guardia Costiera's daily work. He is making a documentary about immigration. On our way back from the release, I was even able to give him a reference to a Danish girl staying in Lampedusa doing her thesis on the phenomena. I hope I helped! Look out for the film, coming in 2014 or 2015!

 The faces of the Coast Guard when they got to hold Squirt were priceless!
 Sad to say goodbye to our cutest turtle, but it was a great day!

The BBC documentary filmmaker that we met downloads about 19 GB of data onto his hard drive every single night... that's a lot of video!   The last goodbye!!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Birthdays and websites

Today was my cousin Eloi's and my best friend's birthday. My best friend (Jesse) is, ironically, going to be spending her summer in Nicaragua doing social NGO work, which is close to both of my parents' hearts, and spending time with my family - meanwhile I'm learning about sea turtles and the world of conservation, which is actually her dad's career.
     I am learning to cope with the spotty internet, although it makes it very difficult for me to work on my research, blog and Rescue Center website. Kaylyn is in charge of formatting and sorting through material for the website, and I work on translating, research and editing.
     The boys finished their masterpiece, a kind of boardwalk that goes around all of the tank holding room so that tourists can have a safe look at the turtles instead of the slippery bricks that there were before.

Here are Alessandro and Amedeo, finishing up work

     Finally, Daniela casually suggested a trip to Sicily for me, where she has arranged for me to stay with the director of a WWF reserve, assist in a turtle release, and explore another part of Italy. I am more than excited!! She has the best connections and is the absolute sweetest host for doing this for me - I did not expect my trip to turn out like this.

Friday, May 24, 2013


We chose today to go to Linosa, a nearby volcanic island, because of the comparatively decent weather. As everything in this region, the ferry is highly dependent on the wind. Despite being reassured, the way there was essentially hell with 3 meter plus waves. It was like a less sturdy version of a roller coaster.
Dark sand beaches and rising sea temperatures means more male hatchlings from Linosa!

The island itself was very beautiful - completely different from Lampedusa except for the presence of cacti. The soil was black and there were many more types of plants because of the volcanic nutrients. It is only 6 square kilometers, even smaller than where I'm staying! The first inhabitants came about 170 years ago, and the entire island has only 10 surnames (I'm not being facetious when I say the population has undergone some slight genetic drift). Visually, the island looked like Latin America - the climate the vegetation, the houses, etc. We hiked around the crater of a dormant volcano (the name of which I don't know, but it was something like the Italian equivalent of "Mount Hill") and enjoyed sandwiches courtesy of the self-proclaimed "Panino Queen," Giulia.

The outside of the turtle rescue center - the interior was burned, but luckily there were no turtles or people inside that night.

We briefly visited the WWF-run turtle rescue center that had been burned down a week before, and of course had to pretend we were tourists and in no way affiliated with the cause, since local sentiments are not exactly welcoming (not sure why, though, as Linosa doesn't really have a prominent fishing population - perhaps it is cultural or superstitious).

Beautiful hikes up the volcanoes!

We were desperate for water by 15:00 but as we arrived in the tiny port town, we were notified by some local drunks that nothing is ever open between 13:00 and 17:00. We waited until then in the shade of a hotel, but we were out of luck - there was a funeral that day that apparently required the attendance of everyone on the island, including shopowners. The pharmacy was open for emergencies, so we checked it out and found a psychotic pharmacist that told us we would have dreams about dolphins if we bought her seasickness medicine. We survived, though, and the return ferry was fortunately pleasant.
Finally we had an aperitivo (caipirinha for me!) with Daniela to quench our thirst and hunger. There were so many delicious snacks, including panelle (chick pea patties - fried) and sufincino (cheese-less pizza with onions and anchovies - so not really pizza, but still delicious!).

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Turtle guts

     After a day’s delay, we performed the autopsy on a sea turtle that passed away last November. Disgustingly, the only preservation it underwent was an industrial food freezer. This was probably the smelliest thing I have ever smelled. It was well worth it, though. I learned a lot, and it was so interesting to see in real a lot of the anatomical features that I learned about in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.    Here is a quick recap of the morning:
  •        Turtle aesophagus is specially designed to not allow regurgitation of live prey and to prevent stinging from cnidarian, one of its main food sources.
  •        Fibrin ‘scar’ tissue is not a good thing to find in and around wounds. It stops actual cicatrization from happening. Sadly, we found an abundance of it in this turtle, around incisions and inside the intestines in huge chunks
  •         This turtle had been found with a hook in its mouth, and the entire digestive track contained a line that exited from the anus
  •        There is a special veterinary technique used in turtle surgery that was developed here in Lampedusa by scientists from the University of Bari. It consists of making incisions on the pectoral side near the line between the flippers and the plastrone to temporarily remove the digestive tract from the inside of the turtle. Thus examinations and procedures can be done on the insides of the turtle without having to completely disrupt the fragile and slower-healing plastrone.
  •        The aforementioned procedure was successful in removing the line in this turtle, but because of a few vital mistakes, and the preexisting weakness of this starved turtle, the specimen died within a few months of the surgery.
  •      The turtle had been found with many infections and was suffering from malnutrition, as the fishing line was obstructing digestion and disabling consumption.
  •        The surgical procedure was carried out indelicately and seems to have broken or at least nicked part of the lower left kidney
  •        There was very little, if any, actual healing of any of the incisions or injuries that the turtle suffered, probably because of its depleted immune system and malnutrition
  •        Blood was found inside the digestive tract, suggesting an ulcer or incomplete/incorrect healing of the problems that had been found in the digestive tract
  •       The immediate cause of death was determined by opening the trachea. In this case, the turtle died from asphyxiation. The foam inside shows the presence of seawater in the respiratory tract. The turtle was likely weakened to the point of not being able to surface for air.

Also interestingly, in loggerhead turtles, unless the turtle is over about 30 years of age, the only anatomical difference between sexes is the presence of testicles or eggs. These are only found inside. There is almost no way to tell sexes apart besides dissection because hormones are unstable and constantly changing in both sexes.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Different realities

     Tonight we went out (more than just getting a drink at a lazy bar) for the first time. We went to Janys’ house, which is actually a large residence. It is actually gorgeous and has a beautiful patio, which he took advantage of and hosted a small party before the first tourists arrived. At this point it seems like there is no one on the island, but apparently the first few days of June are a quick transformation, making Lampedusa a wonderful travel destination. I’m not that into the ‘going out’ scene here, although the people are very nice, there is not much to talk about. First of all is the language barrier (thank goodness I had Kaylyn with me), and second of all we don’t relate in any way. The other volunteers and I have much to talk about because we’re obviously interested in a similar cause and have similar, or at least compatible interests. The majority of the people I’ve met besides them, though, never made it past high school and are only concerned with making money off of tourism in whatever way is easiest to them.
     This, according to Daniela and many of the older or more concerned residents of Lampedusa, is the sad reality. The future looks stark based on the attitudes and lack of willingness to learn of today’s youth.
     We also met Anna, a spunky and friendly girl from rural Britain today. She is just the sweetest thing, and is au pairing with a family here. She comes back every summer to do this, and has turned down her place at uni for neurosciences to do so. For me, it’s unbelievable. But seeing her so happy and in her element makes me realize the importance of that annoying, yet maybe true phrase: “you do you”.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Diversifying my skills

     I translated from Italian to English for the first time today!! It’s way easier than it sounds, even for veterinary and scientific procedural writings. The document I worked on was a presentation about sea turtle operations, rescue and more things including the words “cervical sinuses” (?) and “catheters”.
     I’m getting much more comfortable at holding the turtles down for medication! I’ve never come so close to animal blood and smelly pus in my life but it’s not so bad. I could basically be a vet at this point; my biggest fears have been conquered.
     Giulia made an incredible pasta with zucchini and shrimp (not Kosher, uh oh) for lunch that I could eat every day of my life. And Daniela bought us gelato! Life is too good when all you taste is Nutella, pistachio and fiori di latte.
     I also decided on the structure of my paper for the Environmental Summer Fellowship requirement. It is going to be focused on policy due to my lack of tools and data to do other kinds of statistical analysis and lack of resources and time to do a full-blown biological research paper. Just thinking about the topic of policy, regulations and conservation efforts has given me so many ideas.
     We also have lots of ideas for the NGO, including building a better website that also has information in English. So comes the challenge of buying an internet system – wifi, router, etc – such a challenge on this island!! The next steps, after the website, are advertising and creating connections at universities and other organizations that may be willing to partner up or fundraise.     I also had homework tonight… I spent about two hours reading a procedural description on the biochemistry and haematology of sea turtles, since tomorrow we do blood sampling and RBC counting. Turtle haemotology is a very unexplored field and needs more data if scientists hope to be able to detect any actual pattern that results from testing may indicate. As of now, for one observation there exists several possible explanations, making the work seemingly useless at the time. Eventually it will pay off, I hope!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Two kinds of boats

     Today, I learned about two different kinds of boats found off the coast of Lampedusa – fishing boats and immigrant boats.
I woke up bright and early this morning to walk around Porto Nuovo with Alessandro in search of fishermen to interview for Giulia’s thesis. We dropped off Kaylyn at her SCUBA certification lesson – so jealous! If I weren’t terrified of open water and sharks, I would love to join. I’m going to add it to my bucket list!
     On our walk, we talked about the difference between problems caused by palangrese (longline) and straccico (trawler) boats in relation to sea turtle conservation, and why it is difficult to make change.
There are more problems than just teaching fishermen not to kill sea turtles, even by accident. The fish population of the Mediterranean is decreasing rapidly and vastly. This is despite regulations, which some say are sufficient, yet others say they are not. Here comes, then, the question of the illicit fishing industry. This is largely fueled by Tunisian and Algerian boats that have the advantage of having no European GPS tracker. They are unregulated and fish excessively in places that are not allowed. The Coast Guard may confiscate these boats, but it is difficult to find them unles there is constant aerial and nautical monitoring.
     In the words of a well-educated tourist, “it’s not that we need harsher regulations; the problem is illegal fishing. No matter what limit we put on things, people will always want to take it a step further. If we stop that, there might be a chance.”
     We also saw large wooden Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan boats beached along the side of Porto Nuovo. These aren’t for fishing – they had no place for lines or net – these are for the immigrants that there are so many news articles about. Here is an interesting, though pretty opinionated, blog about the situation in Sicily, including some Lampedusa specifics.
They come over, hundreds of them crowded on wooden boats, and risk their lives on the voyage from the North of Africa to Europe. This phenomena is very interesting to me, as my mother works with immigrants in the United States. Evidently, context and risk may be different, but the goal and hopes of all of the immigrants is the same. Italy is one of the few EU countries that allows undocumented immigrants and gives them ‘amnesty’ or documentation to continue on their European paths. Although it sounds nice, it is an extremely flawed system and very politically/economically motivated. The EU gives Italy 10 Euros per immigrant per day to give them shelter – only four of which are used for their supposed purpose. The immigrants get daily allowances, also, which create a sense of dependency and false reality of Europe. Once they move from this immigrant station to the mainland, they are completely on their own. Desperation and lack of knowledge of how things work without government assistance leads to what people may call “delinquent” behavior, etcetera. There are also success stories, beautiful good fortune found and sent back to families back home.
     This phenomena also relates to the Lampedusa Turtle Rescue Center; about two years ago, there was an overabundance of immigrants found off the coast of Lampedusa during the winter – too many to keep in the center, which has space for about 350 of the near 1000 present at the time. They needed a place to keep them, so without warning, decided to house hundreds within the Center’s humble walls. Almost all of the education materials, and many of the supplies necessary for basic maintenance of sea turtles, were destroyed.

Porto Nuovo

     Daniela, being the incredible woman that she is, had nothing to offer but sympathetic words of the people that were situated here without warning. Of course, having no source of income for the center besides donations and her own salary as a teacher, it was hard to replace many things. The van that 8 people slept in and deconstructed has not been salvaged. But she dedicates a whole room of the center, though partially hidden because of political reasons, to understanding the issue of immigration in Lampedusa, and being sensitive to the things that cause it.

The wall of a room at the Rescue Center that Daniela dedicated to the immigration phenomena