Above: Yannis Vardakastanis talks to CofC students about the negative impact of mass tourism on his small island home of Zakynthos.

The distance between Charleston, South Carolina, and Zakynthos, Greece, is more than 5,000 miles. There might not seem to be much of a connection between two places half-way around the world from each other, but there is. Both are popular tourist destinations with beaches that serve as nesting areas for loggerhead sea turtles. And both have College of Charleston students doing great things.

Since 2010, more than 65 CofC students, some of them Bonner Leaders, have visited Zakynthos on Alternative Break to volunteer at the Mediterranean Marine Life Center, which is located next to Gerakas beach, a heavy tourist destination that is also a nesting beach for loggerheads. The idea for the trans-Atlantic alliance began when Stephanie Visser, the director of the Center for Civic Engagement, was volunteering with a local loggerhead program in 2008 and one of her AB students showed her MMLC’s website.

Including the most recent cohort of 12 students who visited for two weeks in May 2023, the students have completed more than 7,750 service hours to help the director, Yannis Vardakastanis, with conservation efforts. The small island is the main nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles in the entire Mediterranean, but increased tourism – 2 million visitors in 2022 – threatens their habitats and Zakynthos as a whole.

“When you listen to Yannis speak about everything the island has lost, you can’t help but feel the same passion he does to preserve what’s left,” says Eliza Dinh ’23, a site leader who just completed a monthlong stint at the center (she also spent two weeks there last May). “But it’s not just about the loggerhead sea turtles. The issues are entangled in failing systems and policies, the culture that is lost, the declining economy and human selfishness. The only hope is found within us and the younger generation – what can we do, big or small, that creates positive change. We all have our own Zakynthos, a place we call home and know and love, and our responsibility is to protect these places.”

The primary role of the student volunteers is to engage with the thousands of tourists who visit the center, educating them about conservation and responsible tourism practices, such as to stay on the rocky area of the beach, shake off all sand before they leave and stay clear of turtles and their nests. Other work includes:

  • Communicating the center’s conservation practices across cultural and language barriers effectively.
  • Cleaning the outdoor tanks to prepare them for a fish breeding program.
  • Marketing efforts involving social media, website work, signage and educational videos.
  • Joining Vardakastanis on a night survey of all the nesting beaches to record data on illegal beach activity including lights, clubs/bars, visitors sneaking past entrances, etc.
  • Helping with the release of Greek tortoises from the tortoise breeding program onto protected headlands.
  • Opening an eco-beach on the roof of the center for tourists to use as an alternative to visiting the nesting beach.
  • Increasing the number of local volunteers.

As part of their volunteer efforts at MMLC, Becca Hauser, Liv Lott and Lexi Lombardi created signage to help educate visitors about sea turtle species.

Alumna Cyril Langston ’21, who moved to Zakynthos in April to work full time at the center managing the volunteer and internship program, was on-hand this year to support the College’s students during their time in Greece. Langston, who double-majored in German and arts management at the College before earning a master’s degree in accounting and finance from Queen Margaret University in Scotland, first became involved with the center through her work with the CCE during her time at the College.

“Having the students there is amazing because it brings the energy up and inspires not just tourists but staff who are fighting for conservation every day in a very different system without much community buy-in,” says Langston, who also helps manage the center’s donation outreach and education materials. “Their energy is great for morale.”

One of those students to go on the AB trip in May was Liv Lott, a rising junior majoring in communication. She also participated in last year’s trip and returned this year as a site leader.

“Zakynthos is a special place with a palpable natural beauty that commands you to recenter yourself in the natural world,” she says, adding that one of the highlights was helping Vardakastanis release adult Greek tortoises.

But the turtles aren’t the only ones benefiting from the work. The volunteer experience fits perfectly with the Center for Civic Engagement’s Alternative Break program, which provides CofC students with avenues of self-discovery and social awareness and responsibility through education, community and service immersion, and cultural exchange.

“This global partnership gives our students the chance to move beyond theoretical classroom concepts to hands-on skill development that’s shaped by their volunteer efforts at the center,” Visser says. “At the same time, they’re challenged to step out of their comfort zone as they see, in real time, how their actions can impact a community. Coupled with education and reflection on the issues, they soon begin to see a way that they can make meaningful change.”

Vardakastanis spent a week at the College in March 2023, learning from and networking with marine biology faculty and students, biologists from the South Carolina Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and SCORE (SC Oyster Recycling Enhancement) program, among others.

Vardakastanis and Visser

“It’s been an amazing privilege to work with the CCE and CofC students over the years,” he says. “It’s a brilliant partnership that has generated so much good. It connects social responsibility with education and service. Students see the impact of working together to do the right thing, whether they’re serving in the Charleston community or immersed in a sea turtle conservation effort half a world away. I’m very grateful to Stephanie and the students for helping me preserve my home.”

Visser and her staff prepare the students to do the volunteer work by giving them a well-rounded perspective – educating them not only on conservation issues and sea turtle nesting habits but also on cultural differences, the island’s geography, the Greek financial crisis and other issues.

“Quality of service is arguably the most important part of the Alternative Break program, so it was really important to us that this trip was more than just an international service trip to go and try to ‘fix’ a different community’s problems in two weeks,” Langston says. “The students are very beneficial to the center. Since the partnership started, it’s been the only constant for the center and for Yannis. Being around people who actually care is a radical change of pace for Yannis and helps him to stay inspired throughout the season.”

Thanks to the efforts of CofC students, the loggerheads are doing better; there are now 32 local volunteers at the center – up from two from last season; and the center recently released its 128th Greek tortoise.

“Sometimes change can feel impossible – small actions can feel pointless or insignificant,” says Dinh, who completed her bachelor’s degree in middle grades education this spring. “However, if Yannis and the center has taught me anything, it’s that one person or action can still make something good. The people I’ve met and the lessons I’ve learned have changed the way I think and interact with the world for the better. If Yannis would’ve given up when the island started developing, or if the CCE decided Alternative Break wasn’t possible after COVID, I would not be the person I am today. I am beyond grateful for the awareness and memories I’ve gained from this partnership.”

Not unlike Charleston, Zakynthos has also been a victim of non-sustainable tourism. “These commonalities have created a strong bond between the Center for Civic Engagement and Yannis’ conservation work,” Lott says. “As Yannis often says, it may be too late for Zakynthos but there is still time to change in Charleston.”