One quiet afternoon in June, before the hot, busy days of the high season, I sat with Peter Nicolaides, marine biologist and oceanographer at the Aegean Diving College and Octopus Sea Trips base at Golden Beach. I wanted to find out more about the programmes for marine environmental education and conservation in which he and his partner, Kerstin Lingk, a primary school teacher specialized in environmental education and children with special needs, are involved.
"Well", Peter began, "It all started about three years ago when I read in the Greek press that a lady called Gely Manoussou, who was working at that time in the environmental education office in Sifnos, was organizing a programme for all the primary schools and kindergartens in the Cyclades. I called them and was invited to go to Mykonos to attend a two-day seminar they were holding and I was amazed that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, about the sea. So I stood up and said 'Hey it would be very nice if we included something about the sea.' and they said 'Great, you know, if you can help us with some input'. So I began by visiting a few schools either for free or just for the cost of the fare and that was really the genesis of the programme we started called 'O Mikros Naftilos' (now called 'O Naftilos Taxidhevi') as well as the start of a great friendship with Gely who is a wonderfully energetic and enthusiastic person and who really gets things done.
Today the 'Naftilos' (nautilus) programme is run in cooperation with The Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environmental and Cultural Heritage, the Greek Paedagogical Institute and the Ministry of Education. It has developed into a series of learning activities related to the marine environment, incorporating a 'treasure chest' containing games, short theatrical plays that the kids can put on, guides for the teachers, books for the students, a CD-ROM and video about the marine environment, books about the sea, a Mediterranean Sea-based monopoly game, a compass, the shell of a nautilus and all kinds of other 'treasures'.
"As a matter of fact, only a few days ago I actually found a bit of a nautilus shell in Aliki", Peter told me. "That's a very rare find, you know. The nautilus is a deep sea organism that's been around for about 500,000 years and it's very closely related to the octopus, squid and cuttlefish (soupia)."
Earlier this year the 'Naftilos' programme organized a workshop on marine environmental education which was attended by 75 teachers representing schools from all over Greece - these are the schools now involved nationally in the programme. Peter and Kerstin received extremely good feedback from their presentation at the seminar and it was decided to send the teachers here to Paros for them to learn some basic diving and enough about marine life that they will be able to pass the knowledge on to the children in their schools.
"They don't have to learn anything very technically challenging," Peter explained. "In just two metres of water they can find most of the creatures we usually collect for the touchtanks that we use to show the kids and let them handle marine life. We make a point of showing them that whatever we find and examine is returned to its original habitat so the animals don't get overly stressed. Of course there are other dangers too in that octopus, for example, can become extremely friendly once they've been handled a few times - if you stroke them gently between the eyes, they start to respond like a pet. But if they lose their natural wariness of humans, that could result in them being caught and grilled! So, with the support of the Municipality, we've put up a sign here at Golden Beach saying that it's a protected area and spearfishing and bait fishing are prohibited - in any case it is dangerous for humans when it's a swimming area.
"But it takes a lot of effort to educate people and we've come to realize that it's essential to educate at all levels - primary school, high-school and university - we even had the Marmara kindergarten here the other day with a super teacher called Kiki Vounotripidou, plus 30 kids from the Second Elementary School in Paroikia and their teachers - again two exceptional educators, Palasia Georghiadou and Eva Doumanidhou - who don't get paid for all these extra activities - they just do it from the heart. Then the children presented everything they had learned at the event organized in cooperation with the University of the Aegean at the Paros Municipal Library in June when I was asked to make a presentation about the ecological importance of posidonia seagrass.
"After that we did a condensed version of the same material - touchtanks, beachcombing games, 'treasure hunting', rubbish interpretation - for the NOP Open Day on June 8th for something like 500 children from the Paros and Antiparos Elementary Schools. We collected quite an impressive amount of rubbish from the water which showed the kids how plastic bags can choke sea turtles to death and how all the rubbish turns black as it forms anaerobic bacteria in silty sand. It was quite demonstrative of what happens in the sea and the pollution that you don't normally get to see. The next step is to influence teachers and parents to get the kids into the sea and start snorkelling the shallows. You don't need to go very deep before you can actually see the animals in their habitats and start getting away from the idea of spearing or shooting or killing anything you see that moves and instead start to become aware of and interested in how the animals live in their underwater world."
Diving is only a vehicle, Peter stressed. It's nothing very exciting if you're not able to interpret or understand what you see. Their aim is to build a rapport between humans and the environment, raising peoples' awareness and teaching them to watch and to interact with marine life. For example, if you see a fish and approach it directly, it will usually swim away. But if you scratch gently on rocks or sand, then everything comes to you because they want to investigate what's going on in their neighbourhood! And if you're diving with tanks, you have the added advantage that as you start to breathe slowly and rhythmically, your breathing becomes background noise for the animals, they can be lulled almost into a trance-like state as you really become a 'part' of their world and they stop being afraid of you. This is the origin of the meaning of ecology (oikologia in Greek) - you visit the animals in their own home - their 'oikos'.
We humans also need to learn not to be afraid. Peter explained that they teach adults and children not to be scared of the posidonia fields, which might seem dark and mysterious until one understands that really it's a very friendly little meadow which is home to about 500 species of plants and maybe up to 2,000 different types of small sea creatures. What we do need to be concerned about, however, is the fragility of the ecosystem and how easily it can be destroyed. One hour of trawling, for example, can decimate up to about a thousand square metres of posidonia and this kind of damage is being done all over the Aegean, despite the fact that it's a very critical part of our global ecosystem and a protected habitat under EU directive 92/43.
Another common cause of posidonia damage is from yachts dropping and dragging their anchors. Peter hopes to persuade the local Municipality to create proper mooring buoys (remezza) around the island. This would not only protect the posidonia fields, but is also a better solution for the yachtsmen and can potentially provide benefits to the local economy. Secure moorings would encourage visiting yachts to small ports such as Piso Livadi or Aliki and charging a token levy of a few euros a day would take care of the costs of maintaining the buoys and provide some local employment.
Apart from involving Parian children in the effort to protect the marine environment, Peter and Kerstin are devoting a great deal of their time and energy towards what they call "academic tourism".
"I believe Paros could be the focal point in the Aegean for this type of tourism. The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts proves that something like that can in fact be a viable proposition," Peter says. "We should really alert the international academic community that Paros is a wonderful place to hold seminars - on marine biology, archaeology, the environment - there's plenty of scope."
After their teacher contacted Peter last year (after reading an article about the Aegean Diving College in 'Paros Life') twelve A-level biology students from St. Lawrence College in Athens came to Paros to do a survey of marine animals and plants in the bay of Tripiti. Peter and Kerstin are now approaching other foreign schools in Athens, as well as schools in England and Germany, to visit Paros on field trips and learn about the biological and cultural treasures of the Aegean. In addition, after successfully running a number of three-day courses in underwater archaeology for academics, Peter this year set up The Aegean Institute (www.aegeaninstitute.org) offering comprehensive one and three-week workshops to the academic community. He has received enquiries from universities all over the world, including Ivy League universities such as Princeton, Harvard and Yale.
"There are just so many people interested", Peter told me, "and they want to find a good place to bring their students and do field work. Paros is ideally situated because it's all accessible, it lies in very shallow water. Last week I had eight Americans here - all university professors in archaeology, anthropology and history of art - and I took them to a few shallow water classical sites where you don't have to dive with tanks (it is illegal in Greece to dive over antiquities with tanks, but snorkelling is permitted), and they snorkelled over that and they were ecstatic, so they now want to bring a group of students next year. And we had another professor of archaeology here from Norway with 20 students who wants to do the same thing later this month. Then there's the College Year in Athens students as well as the students at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts, who have all joined our "Snorkel over the Past" programmes. Frankly, it's an experience they never forget. We teach them how to spot the man-made breaks in nature's chaotic patterns. We take them to Saliagos, the oldest documented human presence in the Aegean from six and a half thousand years ago, to Pandieronissia where we've located an extensive archaic foreshore and underwater stone quarry, then to the excavation of Despotiko and the tombs carved out into the bedrock in the channel between Despotiko and Aghios Georgios in Antiparos."
I asked Peter who else was doing this kind of work in Greece.
"Sadly, no one. Nobody at the moment. On the one hand it's good that we're kind of pioneering this thing, on the other hand, precisely because nobody's doing it there's no network of support, so we have to just do whatever we can to influence people and help them to understand how important this is and how we must conserve and protect our natural and cultural resources or there just won't be anything interesting there any longer for anyone to come and see.
"Still, I'm encouraged by the new administration on Paros and feel very hopeful that Mayor Rangoussis will be supportive and that he really takes the time to understand some of the issues. He can see that these kinds of activities can attract funds and grants for the island as well as benefiting Paros enormously from the point of view of tourism."
Peter has been trying over the last few years - so far to no avail - to get funding from central government to establish a network of marine protected areas around Paros and Antiparos. Together with academics from Greek universities and the National Centre for Marine Research, as well as many other concerned individuals and organizations, he has compiled a comprehensive proposal. He's now concentrating on applying to regional programmes and directly to the EU for funds. The implementation of such a programme would create jobs for young islanders as marine and archaeological park-keepers and wardens.
Some of Peter and Kerstin's activities were the subject of a recent NET TV documentary series called "The Aegean, Now and Forever" written by Kostas Gouzelis, an architect, photographer and scriptwriter living in Naoussa. The episode which featured The Aegean Diving College was entitled "Bythos - Paralili Kosmoi" (The Deep - Parallel Worlds). The idea of a "parallel world" seemed to capture the essence of what Peter had been describing to me that afternoon. As our interview was drawing to a close, we were joined by a young man who Peter introduced as a novice diver who had, in just a couple of days, already become "hooked".
"It's so rewarding to have feedback from novices of all ages," Peter said. "Every time you re-live the thrill through other people as it opens up a window to a new world for them. I could never get bored doing this."
The young man joined in: "Exactly. It was magic. Like having a mirror - I was on one side of the mirror and with Mr Peter I went to the other side of the mirror, to another world. I'd done a lot of snorkelling before, but with diving it's another thing. You are living there. You are there. When you snorkel it's very fast, you have just a little time, maybe one or two minutes that you go out of this world. But when you can stay there for an hour, it's like you've been converted or something."
Peter added "Well, yes, it's a transformational process, alright. You become aware of another dimension that simply wasn't there before. Another world lying right there beside you that you hardly knew anything about. You are totally involved - with the psyche, the spirit and the body. Floating underwater, once you've got your buoyancy trimmed, gives you such a sense of freedom - it's almost like achieving those childhood dreams of flying."