Life at UCB through the eyes of our student bloggers

5 Things I Learnt as an AWF Volunteer

5 Things I Learnt as an AWF Volunteer

Hola! How has your first week back gone? I’ve quite enjoyed it, especially seeing my friends and getting stuck into subjects. As promised I have quite a lengthy post for you this week, so if you’d like to stick with me please pop the kettle on, have a snack handy and get yourself comfy!

Ooh side note – I’ve attempted to be a bit of an educator so I’ve bolded any words that may warrant further explanation. Please feel free to scroll down to the bottom for some terminology should you be unsure of any meanings.

Ok, so I realised going back through previous posts that although I told you about what we would be doing as volunteers, I barely explained who the AWF actually are. AWF stands for Atlantic Whale Foundation, and they are a charity organisation who run research and conservation programs in Tenerife. I think its amazing that they provide young people unique opportunities to be volunteers and get involved with projects, mostly acting as research guides on the whale watching tourist boats and taking them to explore the whole island. All they ask of their volunteers is that they are positive, passionate and want to do something meaningful and contribute to making a difference. Sounds amazing? Yes, it really is!!

Their core goal is to raise awareness of the conservation threats facing whales and dolphins across the Atlantic Ocean, something all volunteers help with! AWF attracts so many people from all over the world to be volunteers, and after experiencing it for myself its not hard to see why! Our home for the two weeks was in the gorgeous little town of Arona, where the volunteers eat, sleep, live, interpret/ analyse data about the whales and dolphins, and work on projects. AWF have recently opened their own visitor centre in Puerto Colon, one of the main ports for the boats. It’s right by a wonderful place to eat called Cafe Victoria, where we get dropped off in the morning for a hearty breakfast before starting our days on the boats or in the visitor centre. Croissants and tea in the morning = happy volunteers!

Arona is in the mountains and the views are unreal! Its not to far from the resort of Los Cristianos. We had goats for neighbours, who would sometime wake us up in the mornings. In the very early morning… The house is the quirkiest place to live and exceptionally cute, especially with the African animal décor. Ed, the co-ordinators; Alex, Hannah, Mike, and Mama Teresa – our mother figure – took care of us and made our stay incredible!

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Our role as research guides meant we spent 3 days a week on the boats, filling out the data sheets about the species encountered and taking fin shots to identify the Pilot Whales and Bottlenose Dolphins. These beautiful mammals are the resident species that live around the Canary Islands. Between 600 – 1000 pilot whales, as well as 30 Bottlenose Dolphins live in the waters between Tenerife and La Gomera, so tourists are guaranteed to see them on trips! Aside from being research guides, and exploring the island, we also worked on tourism related projects;  nature, culture, sports, and tour repping.

Here’s what I learnt from the experience.

  1. HOW TO SPEAK WHALE

Unfortunately not literally. Although my boyfriend suggested speaking ‘whale’ as a way of engaging with tourists. Not sure how well that would have gone down, but regardless of this, whales and dolphins are complex creatures with various dialects depending on the species. Even pods from the same species have different languages depending on the family group (such as Orca’s). As research guides we had to be clued up about the whales and dolphins, in order to record their behaviours, and get talking with tourists about these gorgeous mammals. We had an in-depth induction and everyday we’d learn something new about different species. I could confidently say everyone gained a lot of knowledge on pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins and we could easily tell or show you some of their behaviours!

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Fun fact time… Did you know? Pilot Whales are identified by their dorsal fins! Each dorsal fin is unique to each pilot whale. It’s similar to how our finger prints are unique to us. Once we’d taken fin shots and recorded data, we would analyse the data and compare the images to the fin catalogue of pilot whales, created by previous volunteers and co-ordinators. These cuties are also known as the cheetahs of the ocean, diving at super fast speeds to catch their food. The more you know about the animals and the more enthusiasm you put in, the more tourists are interested in speaking to you. Which is exactly what we aim to do. Plus they are absolutely adorable (the ugh… whales and dolphins that is…not the tourists).

If you’d like to  find out more about the cetacean species around the Canary Islands including migratory species, just click this link. Lots of our group were able to see a few migratory species including Common Dolphins and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (the latter of which I was lucky enough to see a huge pod twice in 1 day, it was spectacular)!!

Being part of the nature team, one of the ideas our group came up with was to incorporate social media, so that volunteers can get tourists interested in conservation issues that affect marine life and nature. We got feedback from the other project groups and together we initiated the hashtags #delphies (delfies) and #actwhalefriendly. Although we’re back in Birmingham now, the co-ordinators are continuing to work on our little campaigns so that we can hopefully inspire more tourists to feel passionate about conservation issues and learn more about the nature in Tenerife.

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Which brings me to my next point…

2: PLASTIC POLLUTION IS A REAL PROBLEM

Before I came to Tenerife, the only conservation issues I knew a little about were captivity and whaling. Hannah and Alex (two of the co-ordinators) have both studied conservation, which combined with their volunteering experiences and research projects they have worked on, it provided us nature girls with a great opportunity to get educated on various conservation threats. One that stood out the most was plastic pollution. Since I’ve been home I’ve not stopped reading articles and going back through the information Hannah provided about how this threat is drastically damaging nature. Plastic is one of the biggest pollutants in our oceans! It drifts around the world, covers our coasts and massively affects marine life. Every year thousands of marine animals die because of accidentally eating plastic. It blocks their airways and causes starvation, due to their stomachs being filled with plastic and taking away the feeling of hunger…

This is not a sustainable environment! Animals, plants, people, we all depend on our oceans. Animals are curious and inquisitive, if they see something like a plastic bag floating around they will go and investigate, which could result in digesting the plastic or having it wrapped around their bodies. Why should nature suffer because of something we can control?! There are lots of ways to help, even something as small as chucking away rubbish into bins and recycling makes a difference. Doing a mini beach clean is another fabulous contribution, regardless of who’s rubbish it is. After snorkelling, a few of us participated in a beach clean up and I was surprised by the amount we collected. Sustainability for nature and wildlife is a massive factor in tourism, and its beneficial to know the importance of these kind of threats, and how it affects not only nature and wildlife, but also tourism.

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Super clean beach now!

2. THERES MORE TO TENERIFE THAN MEETS THE EYE

Tenerife is a nature lovers/ sports enthusiasm paradise. You may, like a lot of people wonder; Tenerife, are you sure? Well yes, absolutely. Two weeks exploring the island is enough to see how much Tenerife offers in terms of a tourism destination. It should be known as a destination amazing for its nature, wildlife and awesome activities. A volcanic island, with an actual active volcano, need I say more? Lying on the beach all day – everyday in Los Cristianos, getting on a bus to Siam Park and then partying in Las Americas from dusk till dawn, isn’t all Tenerife is about, despite what you see on Instagram or Snapchat. Not exploring the real Tenerife in favour of what the travel brochures sell, well you’d be missing out.

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There is literally something for everybody. Sports lover? Think scuba diving, mountain biking, paragliding, trekking, snorkelling. For the cultural side, think quirky little towns, pretty fishing villages and not forgetting Santa Cruz, Tenerife’s quiet but chic city centre, where the shopping is unbelievable (girls check out Pull & Bear & Stradivarius, amazing for the clothes, lethal for your bank account)!  The beaches are lovely too, but my favourite was El Puertito, meaning Turtle Bay. Relax on the beach among the locals, and to cool down go for a swim with the green turtles! (El Puertito, such a cute name). Oh the shopping mall in Santa Cruz is the 1st place I’ve seen where you can charge your phone or electrical devices, just by pedalling. Eco & exercise all in one! Overall Tenerife is a fun and beautiful place to be, I love it!!

I learned the importance of perception vs reality last year during the tourism & media module last year, Tenerife is far away from what I thought possible. Just watch this video to see why!

3. CAPTIVITY HAS A WHOLE NEW MEANING

Before being on the volunteer placement, I was naive in only understanding captivity about Orca’s (Killer Whales). I wanted to highlight this point because it is one of the things that have stuck out the most during these couple of weeks, although I’m not going to write much about this issue because quire frankly, its really upsetting for me to think about, let alone write about it. During the first few days we were invited to watch a documentary called The Cove. If you haven’t watched it, I highly suggest you do, just so you have an idea of whats really involved in the capture of wild dolphins. Hundreds of wild dolphins are herded towards a small cove in Taiji (Japan), where they are either exploited and captured or maliciously slaughtered. To write about what is exactly involved is far to graphic for this blog and heartbreaking. So instead, I’ve linked a few websites that you can learn more about captivity, dolphin exploitation and what organisations are trying to do to put a stop to it. I also suggest a documentary called Blackfish, which specifically focus’ on the captivity of Orca’s.

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Sea Shepherd: A marine wildlife conservation organisation. This link is about what happens in the cove.

Orca captivity facts

Free Morgan Foundation

The Dolphin Project

4. FIZZY DRINKS HELP WITH SEA-SICKNESS

I’ve been sea-sick once before so it was natural for me to be a tiny bit apprehensive about how I would feel on the boats. I’m happy to report, I was completely fine,  in-fact being on the boats was my very favourite part of the placement, since I knew we would be getting close to wild marine life. When you approach a pod, theres a few seconds of silence, clicks of camera shutters, squeals, or occasionally someone bringing up their paella…So if you are on a boat and feel a bit queasy, drink the fizzy stuff, not water. Quells or ginger tablets might help as well.

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5. VOLUNTEER PROJECTS ARE AMAZING

It’s really hard to try and sum up the whole experience into one blog post, or even in words, and I found this post surprisingly hard to write. More than anything, I’m so grateful to have been picked for the placement along with everyone else. I never expected to learn as much as I did and I’ve been searching for projects like AWF to be part of in the future. Aside from learning loads and falling in love with the whales and dolphins, we had so much fun, it was the most amazing way to start 2016!

Helping out for the day at a dog rescue centre, where around 200 dogs are waiting for loving new families was extremely emotional and I would of loved to take them all home. I’m so happy we were able to take some of them for walks, provide cuddles and give them so much love.

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Even though I talk a lot and love to make friends, I still get anxious in social situations so the whole experience really boosted my confidence. I’m sure most of the group would agree being a volunteer provided us with a chance to learn new skills and adapt them into a tourism environment, which we can use to on job applications. The group dynamic was incredible. It was a fabulous cultural experience especially learning the history of the Canarian people, attempting to better my Spanish as well as living with people who come from all over the world. We also had lots of laughs in our room, practicing our fluke slaps and spy-hopping in our sleeping bags…

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Getting up close to wild marine animals was a dream come true, and even though I’ve never seen them, knowing that Orca Whales have migrated through the same area was a great feeling . I loved that we were able to see the real Tenerife as the island is stunning! Everyone I met was lovely and I’m thankful for how much they looked after us. Really excited to go back hopefully very soon!! If you’d like to find out more about the fantastic work AWF do, please head to their website www.whalenation.org. 

Thank you so much for taking time to read all of this.

D x



 

Terminology 

Cetaceans: Marine mammals; dolphins, whales and porpoises.

La Gomera: An island is in the Canaries.

Pod: groups of whales or dolphins.

Dorsal Fin: the fin located on the back of the cetaceans

Fluke slap: A fluke is the tail of the cetaceans, and a fluke slap is a behaviour movement, when they slap the water with their flukes.

Spy-hopping: A cute behaviour where they pop their heads out of the water.

Migrate: Whales and dolphins often move habitats throughout various oceans, depending on climate, seasons, food etc.



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