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From turtle protection to citizen science projects: How to give back to the ocean on holiday

Line of kayakers paddling towards a glacier, Samarinbreen, Svalbard.
Line of kayakers paddling towards a glacier, Samarinbreen, Svalbard. Copyright Lina Stock @DivergentTravelers - AE Expeditions
Copyright Lina Stock @DivergentTravelers - AE Expeditions
By Sarah Faith
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Here's how to explore Europe’s oceans responsibly this summer.

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Sarah Faith is a content and values writer at activist travel company, Responsible Travel.

I’m one of those people who feels free by the sea, liberated from life’s stresses by the rhythmic in and out of the waves. There’s little wonder I seek out the ocean when I book an escape.

World Oceans Day reminds us that our seas aren’t just synonymous with holidays, but with life. They generate 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, and absorb 25 per cent of the carbon emissions we produce. But, our oceans need our help. From plastic pollution to warming waters, they have never been more threatened. 

So, on your next beach break, why not take some time to give back to the sea? Here’s how to make it happen. 

Collect rubbish while diving in Lisbon, Portugal

Over 90 per cent of the litter found on Portugal’s beaches is plastic. So, if you fancy a city break In Lisbon, or you want to chill on the lovely Cascais coast, why not combine it with a week learning to dive, collecting marine plastic as you go? Seven days with volunteering organisation, Oyster Worldwide, costs from £1,495 (€1,756) per person, and you’ll come away with a dive certification.

Over 3,000 kg or three tonnes of rubbish has been collected by the project so far, with marine life beginning to flourish in areas that have been cleared.

You can also volunteer to remove plastic waste on a similar diving project off the coast of Barcelona, Spain. Mornings are spent clearing the sea bed of rubbish, with afternoons free to learn Spanish and explore the city. 

Help protect the seabed in Tuscany, Italy

Along the Maremma coastline, an art installation is tackling overfishing in an unusual way. Forty-four marble sculptures from Italian and global artists double as an underwater museum and barrier to illegal bottom trawling. 

La Casa dei Pesci (the House of Fish) is the brainchild and passion of local fisherman Paolo Fanciulli, who has been defending the Maremma sea against illegal trawling for years. Concrete blocks dropped by Fanciulli and local authorities prevent bottom trawlers destroying ecologically vital seagrass meadows, while the underwater museum helps to raise funds and awareness.

Now a team of volunteers continues the work to protect the seabed at Talamone, with plans to build shelters for octopuses, extend the existing block barriers, and lead environmental education programmes in schools. 

Donate to the project, or for something more hands-on you can join Paolo on his fishing boat for an early morning cruise on a cooking and food holiday in Tuscany with Cook Eat Discover. You’ll learn about a more sustainable way to fish the coast off Talamone, taste his catch over lunch, and discover more about the House of Fish project. Seven days costs from £1,500 (€1,760) per person. 

With Paolo Fanciulli onboard the Sirena, Tuscany.
With Paolo Fanciulli onboard the Sirena, Tuscany.Cook Eat Discover

Protect baby turtles in Kefalonia, Greece

Endangered loggerhead turtles return to the beaches of Kefalonia every year to nest. But, if they arrive and the beach is too busy, they won’t lay. Even when the turtles nest successfully, lights and noise can disorientate the new hatchlings and stop them reaching the sea.

Monitoring and protecting turtle nests, patrolling beaches to minimise disruption, helping  hatchlings find the ocean, cleaning beaches, and monitoring local biodiversity takes time and human effort. Wildlife Sense, a conservation charity dedicated to protecting Kefalonia’s turtles, is always on the lookout for volunteers. You can join a team for two weeks or four weeks, from £649 (€762) per person.

All training is provided, you just need a can-do attitude. Youth-specific departures also make these projects an ideal introduction to marine conservation for older teens.

The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece, ARCHELON, offers similar turtle conservation opportunities for visitors in the Peloponnese, Zakynthos, Attica, western Greece and Crete. 

Monitor whales and dolphins at the Pelagos Sanctuary, Italy

While the coastal resorts of Portofino, San Remo, and the Cinque Terre on Italy’s Ligurian coast might be famous for stylish escapes, this stretch of coastline is also one of the best places to see whales and dolphins in Europe. 

Volunteer with the Tethys Research Institute aboard a research boat and explore the protected waters of the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, which stretches in a triangle between Toulon, France, Sardinia, and Fosso Chiarone in Tuscany, Italy. 

You’ll be monitoring cetacean behaviour, inputting data into research databases, monitoring hydrophones - and helping sail the ship. Don’t worry, though, all the training you need is provided and there’s plenty of opportunity to relax, kick back, and enjoy the Italian sea and sunshine along the way. A six-day trip costs from £641 (€752) per person. 

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If you can’t spare a week to volunteer, then you can still help researchers in the Sanctuary by notifying them if you spot the endangered Mediterranean monk seal during your trip, via an online form

Dolphins in the Pelagos Sanctuary.
Dolphins in the Pelagos Sanctuary.Tethys Research Institute

Get involved in citizen science projects in Iceland and the Arctic Circle

If hands-on volunteering projects don’t float your boat, but cruises do, there’s plenty of scope to give back on board. Choose a small ship expedition cruise with AE Expeditions that includes opportunities to get involved with citizen science projects. 

As you circumnavigate Iceland or sail the Arctic waters around Greenland you’ll be guided to take identification photographs of any whales you spot, that can then be uploaded into the global HappyWhale app - the largest identification resource available for marine mammals. 

Researchers rely on contributions from tourists in these regions because they’re so inaccessible - by using tourists and citizen science, they can build a much more in-depth picture of whale populations, movements and behaviour than they could alone. 

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