Archipelagos: A marine conservation institute powered by interns

Archipelagos: A marine conservation institute powered by interns
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Past Storyfest Entries, Science Communication

Tursiops starboard three o’clock!” I hear Sara shout from behind me. I leap up from my spot on the bow and scramble towards my position. All ten other members of the marine mammal team spring into action. The bioacoustics team assembles their equipment at the stern. Sara and the rest of the behavior team take my place at the bow. Half the photo identification team moves to the bow with the behavior team. As a member of the other half of the photo identification team, I climb up to the bridge with our captain, Thodoris, for a 360-degree view.

The entire boat waits in anticipation for the bottlenose dolphin pod to reappear. With my camera I scan the turquoise water of the Aegean Sea desperately searching for an out-of-sync splash.

“There!” Amy, one of the new behavior team members, exclaims. We all follow her outstretched arm to see the pod of fifteen bottlenose dolphins approaching the Okeanos. I watch in fascination and wonder at the graceful marine mammals. I had spent close to a month in Greece interning at Archipelagos and this was my first marine mammal sighting. My excitement is unparalleled, and I struggle to keep my hand still to take clear photos of the breaching dolphins. In between shots, I look around at my fellow marine mammal team members. The other interns who’s first sighting it is are just as excited as I am but remain professional. The seasoned interns are focused but you can see the small smiles and glints in their eyes from the presence of the dolphins and the prospect of new data. This tense and animated yet professional atmosphere persists on the boat until we lose sight of the pod when they deep dive. The atmosphere on the boat then shifts back to the same relaxed one felt just before the sighting. I lean back into the railing and realize that I will remember this experience for the rest of my life and can leave Greece feeling that I accomplished my goal of contributing to ongoing research to protect marine mammals of the Aegean Sea.

Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation is a nonprofit NGO dedicated to protecting the biodiversity of the Aegean Sea and surrounding Greek islands. Archipelagos uses their scientific knowledge to work with local communities to influence environmental policies, actively stop destructive human behavior, and start environmental advocacy campaigns. Its novel business model of hiring aspiring conservationists as interns contributes to their ability to produce robust data, promote their research and conservation efforts, and support the scientific and local communities through education. This takes citizen science to the next level. The interns provide a continuous cycle of young, eager students to collect data and bring fresh perspectives. This unique structure allows interns to gain field knowledge and experience while improving their independence and cross-cultural communication.

One intern, Hedvika, said of her experience: “I came to Greece with a lot of expectations about how it [worked] and was originally disappointed with the reality. However, it turned out to be [beneficial] because I had to learn how to adjust and mainly how to work independently which I’m certain will be useful in the future.”

I personally understand Hedvika’s expectations and lessons learned from the internship. I imagined a period of orientation and education followed by constant fieldwork under strict supervision. This was not the case, but it taught me independence, flexibility, and patience. I was able to construct the internship I desired by being my own advocate, stepping out of my comfort zone, and being open to new experiences.

Another intern, Kristin, commented on the meeting of cultures at Archipelagos: “My perceptions of other cultures and ways of life are changing every single day… I’ve never met people from so many different countries, and I’m so excited for the opportunity to be able to work with them and bring skillsets from all over the world together.”

Like Kristin, I had never worked in such a culturally diverse setting. There were interns and staff members from all over the world. I had to quickly learn new professional and social expectations to more effectively work and communicate with the other interns and my supervisors. It was difficult at times but provided an opportunity for growth and I feel confident in my ability to navigate such a setting in the future.

Kristin also said of her experience as an intern at Archipelagos: “I’m learning skills in more active roles than I’m used to in school. I will be able to use this experience in a long-term career.”

Internships at Archipelagos prepare students for futures in research and advocacy through direct contact with the biodiversity they are observing and local communities. It is such a valuable experience for students to prepare and conduct their own research projects, surveys, and environmental advocacy campaigns all under the guidance of experts in the field. All interns have their own ideas, perspectives, and goals for their time at Archipelagos which can bring about new research projects and campaigns to propel the organization into new domains and deeper into existing ones. This allows Archipelagos to continuously grow and progress as an organization which is made possible by its structure with interns at the core.  

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