All For Blue

Having spent many summer days snorkelling, and thus having witnessed, over the years, the deterioration of the Mediterranean sea floor—while also being an obsessive collector of beach trash—I was interested to come upon a woman who is dedicating her life to the solution of these problems. Meet Katerina Topouzoglou, founder of the organization ALL FOR BLUE.

Photo credit: Alex Suh

Katerina grew up in Greece and spent a lot of her time in the water, becoming in the process a world class underwater target shooting champion, freediving and scuba instructor. She also has a thing for sharks.

What Katerina saw on her ocean adventures inspired her to dedicate her life to ocean conservation. She was kind enough to answer my questions:

Tell us a little about your story. What was your initial involvement with the sea?

K: I was an athletic child, and practiced many different sports from a young age. Finally, I realized my element was water. I was competitive, and my dream was to compete for Greece. I took up underwater target shooting, which is a swimming pool sport that combines apnea with shooting at a target with a speargun. In 2014 the Greek team went to Italy to compete and I totally messed up—I was so anxious! I came back determined to work at it, I practiced as much as I could, entered any swimming pool competition going; and in 2016 I went back to Italy, as Captain of the Greek team, and this time I won three medals in the European Championship, and two medals in the International Championship.

You have many strings to your bow: shark protection, ocean conservation, educating the new generations. What motivated you to make this your life’s work?

K: I watched a video of Cristina Zenato, who is famous for her technique for removing hooks out of the mouths of sharks, and I was fascinated. I emailed her, and managed to get on one of the courses that she runs at a diving centre in Freeport, in the Bahamas. She’s a great instructor, and I loved her approach to things. We got on really well, we became friends, and I went back several times. I also got my scuba diving certifications there. She was my inspiration, not only for my organization, but for the necessity of educating the world about sharks.

Aren’t sharks prehistoric creatures?

K: Of course they are; they evolved before dinosaurs. They’ve been on this earth 450 million years. Only for that, they deserve our respect. They are very misunderstood creatures, and—something I didn’t know at first—they are extremely important for the equilibrium of the eco-system. The fact is, we only get 50% of our oxygen from trees—the rest we get from plankton. Sharks keep the ocean clean by eating dead and wounded fish; where there are sharks, the sea floor is alive and wealthy with all sorts of creatures—fish, turtles, dolphins. In the Mediterranan, in many places you see few fish and a sea floor full of rubbish.

How does the Zenato shark technique of ‘tonic immobility’ work?

K: You get the animals to come close and touch their noses, and that induces a state of tranquillity which allows you to relax them, and get the hooks out of their mouth. Different species of shark behave in different ways. I’ve practiced mostly with Caribbean Reef Sharks. Sharks in general like fish blood, not human blood. Generally attacks are rare—there are 5-8 fatal shark attacks per year, whereas humans kill 100 million sharks each year.

 

Photo credit: Noel Lopez Fernandez


Do sharks realize you’re trying to help them?

K: Again, it depends on the species of shark. For example, whale sharks entangled in nets will go near divers, as if they understand they will get help.

How did ALL FOR BLUE come about?

K: All the ideas come to me while I’m in the water. In 2015, I went to Mexico on a project to measure microplastics in the sea. We collected water 600 miles from shore—it took days to reach the spot—and it was full of microplastics. That’s when I decided to quit spearfishing and devote myself to conservation. My initial interest with keeping the sea clean came from my parents, as a child—so I thought it would be a good idea to connect with the younger generations, and that could best be done through the schools.­­

I started by myself, and now, after four years, All For Blue has  a team of 20 volunteers. We organize seminars in schools, where we give out diplomas, that the children can use later in their college applications and CVs. We also do research with the data we keep from the marine debris, keep records of all trash removed, organize exhibitions, and, of course, beach and underwater  cleanups.

It’s difficult to keep an organization like this alive, because in Greece, especially in the last few years, it’s been hard to get funding. We collaborate a lot with local communities, setting up programs in the areas of interest of the relevant authorities, who can then cover our costs; and also with companies. 

So, this has become your career;

K: No, this is my life purpose. For my day job I’m a real estate agent in Cyclades. But nothing gives me as much pleasure as talking to kids in schools, sharing my knowledge. I’m touched by the response of the people who follow my seminars. The see videos of the sea and they have so much enthusiasm to help and join in. All the medals I’ve won in my life cannot compare with this joy; this is my life’s aim and I feel driven from above.

Do you usually get a positive response from local authorities?

K: Not always. Some are not convinced: they deny there’s any rubbish, don’t see the necessity for seminars or diplomas. What is fantastic is the reaction of the children themselves. Even in the technical colleges, where kids are quite street-wise, they become riveted. On some islands they have started their own teams, and are doing great work. There are now 20  such teams, the most active of which is in Kalymnos. We did two seminars there, and we send them reusable equipment—all plastic free, of course. We’re all very proud of them.

How do you choose the venues you visit? Are you proactive, or do they contact you? Are they mostly Greek?

K: Increasingly we have companies contacting us, in the framework of CSR. They ask us to give seminars to their staff, or they subsidize programs for their company. However, we contact the schools ourselves. This year we got a contract for a yearly project in Cyclades called #KeepMykonosBlue. The program included beach and underwater cleanups, and from this year all plastic removed during our cleanups are turned into trash cans, by using a special procedure. These are now on the island in central areas, such as the stadium etc. 

 

Wherever I travel, I contact the schools. Apart from Greece, we’ve done seminars in the Bahamas, Miami, Djibouti, South Africa and others. Once I went with a group to Cuba for a diving project. We had a free afternoon, so we just walked into the nearest school; we didn’t even speak Spanish. I was very impressed by how knowledgeable the kids were about the sea. They still send us emails about beach cleanups they organize. 

When talking to kids, how do you combine sharks (cool) with trash (potentially boring)?

K: Of course we start with the sharks! But we are passionate about what we do, so we have developed a seminar that is fast—we try to keep a momentum going, with plenty of brief videos and not much lecturing. We show the kids shark teeth we’ve found underwater, and talk about that. Before I start talking, I show little videos of various projects, to get their attention: research projects, freeing mammals (turtles, dolphins, etc) from nets, how hard it is for a diver to get a plastic bag out of the bottom. A dolphin trying to free itself from a plastic bag. I also talk about bio-degradables, and how they’re not as green as advertised, because in the water there’s not enough oxygen; so they break up into little pieces and the fish eat them.

 

What are some of the weirdest things you have removed out of the sea?

K: The first thing I found that shocked me was a shopping trolley stuck in some rocks. Thankfully I had help from other divers, but it still took us 45 minutes to get it out. The list is endless: washing machines, a radiator, 4 scooters, tables, chairs, champagne buckets…

I want the kids to still be shocked. I want our actions to inspire, and have a return to the local community. I insist on education before the cleanup, but I especially insist about the underwater cleanups; because there might be somebody to pick trash off the beach, but few people dive and do cleanups.

We have now collected more than 220 tons of rubbish and given out 55.000 diplomas. In three years, 30.000 of those only in the Cyclades and the Dodecanese. It’s lovely to return to the same places when we can. 

How is the organization coping with the present restrictions?

K: We’ve replaced school visits with Webinars. And outdoor events are held with limited numbers of participants, who wear masks and practice social distancing. Here I would also like to point out that all the equipment we use—gloves, bags, etc—is  plastic free.

Do you have a motto or catchphrase?

K: All for Blue and Blue for All!

Also:

The sea needs allies. Are you with us?

 

Athina Koutsokosta and her daughter, volunteers in All For Blue cleanups

What can people do to help?

K: Lots of things: even making a small donation or buying reusable products from our e-shop, such as stainless steel reusable straws or thermos reusable cups. You can volunteer, join clean-ups, invite us to your country (if you are a relevant organism), invite us to talk in a school. Make your company plastic free.

Where can people follow you on social media?

K: All For Blue has a site, (www.allforblue.org) where you can see exactly who we are and what we do. We’re also on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter, (https://twitter.com/allforblueorg ), as well as posting videos on YouTube. You can link to all of these via our site, too; we’d love it if you followed us!

Footnote: According to new estimates by Australia’s government science agency, CSIRO, at least 14 million tons of plastic pieces less than 5mm wide are sitting at the bottom of the world’s oceans; more than 30 times as much as is floating on the surface. Also microplastic has been found in the actual flesh of fish. Finally, Western countries such as England export millions of tons of their rubbish to Third World countries, instead of processing it themselves. Scary, isn’t it?

September light

The world around us feels extremely weird at the moment: people wandering around in masks, unreliable information buzzing about our ears, uncertainty about the future. Political leadership is underwhelming, to say the least, and crime has increased, sometimes taking on strange manifestations: all over France, horses are being maimed and killed in their fields, for no discernible reason; in Canada, a cable was cut, sending numerous gondolas plunging into the forest below. What can possibly possess people to think of doing such things? 

The news in general makes for uncomfortable reading.


Due to the circumstances, I have not been gadding about to art shows or going on road trips—thus I have been uninspired to write. I took a break and just enjoyed other people’s posts; lazy, I know—but, after all, it’s not homework!


My refuge, as always, is nature. In Greece the light has subtly changed, heralding the coming of autumn, although the temperature is still high: it’s yellow and mellow. The pomegranates are ripening on the trees, so are the olives. The bougainvillea is blazing.  The house is full of baby geckos. I will try to capture some of this with paint and paper
; meanwhile, enjoy these few photos.

 

Listening to bees buzzing around I thought what fascinating creatures they are: I recently read an article describing how scientists are “scent training” honeybees like search dogs. They believe establishing long-term memory scents in bees could help boost crops like almonds, pears and apples.

Honeybees were given food scented with odours that mimicked sunflowers which then altered their choices about which plants to visit. Isn’t that amazing?


Also, I find the scent of jasmine irresistible—so subtle but bewitching. I’m digressing, I know, but I just wanted to reconnect: a few people have told me off for the radio silence. I’ve got a couple more interesting posts on the boil, so stay tuned! 

Liminal time

Here’s a wonderful post from my friend Anne Lawson, about the strange times we live in. Anne is an artist so have a look at the work on her blog, too!

Anne Lawson Art

Melbourne has been in Stage 4 lockdown for a few weeks now. Exercise once a day for a maximum of an hour; shopping for essentials once a day and only one person; only within a 5 km radius. And a curfew from 8:00 at night to 5:00 in the morning. Businesses have been severely curtailed, with only essential work to be carried out and workers needing a permit to show they are essential.

Mask-wearing has been mandatory for about a month, and most people are complying.

Our borders with NSW and South Australia are closed.

Fortunately these very strict measures seem to be bringing the numbers down, although our elderly in residential care have had a very tragic time. You might like to read my last post about our Elders.

And me? Thank you for asking! I feel that I have been doing this for ever, and indeed it has…

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Wednesday Wander Revisited – Panathenaic Olympic Stadium, Greece

You might like to read about this wonderful stadium, made out of white marble and blessed with great acoustics. At the 2004 Olympics, I went there to watch the archery competition.

Helen Glynn Jones

I originally posted this Wander almost exactly four years ago, when the Olympics were in full swing in Rio, the world celebrating together as it usually does. However, although the 2020 Olympics were scheduled to take place this month, things are much different. The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until next year, but even that hasn’t been confirmed, as we live in such uncertain times. It’s such a shame, and I really feel for the athletes who have been working towards this for so long. I’m not much of a watcher of sport, but there is something about the Olympic Games that captures my imagination, and I find myself caught up in the atmosphere and excitement of it all. Therefore, as we have no Olympics to celebrate this year, I thought I might revisit a Wander that takes us to where the modern Olympics began…

Olympic Stadium 2I thought it might be…

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Erasing history

The news these days are full of stories of social unrest. Something that has been brewing for a while, as society divides become greater, rather than narrower.
However, I find myself perplexed by the practice of tearing down statues of people who were slave traders or racists, along with their other attributes, for which they were celebrated.

 


History is built in shades of grey: unfortunately human nature is such that the strong often prey on the weak.
Alexander the Great built wondrous libraries in his glorious conquest of the ‘known world’, but also massacred plenty of ‘barbarians’ along the way. In the democracy of classical Athens, there were slaves, who did not have a vote—and neither did women, or foreigners.
The men who hauled blocks of marble to build the Parthenon were not blessed with paid holidays and health care. Should we tear down the Pyramids, because they were built in sweat and blood?
Religions and sects have persecuted, burnt, and tortured people who did not share their beliefs. Should we tear down the churches and temples?
Some of the slave traders were black themselves, preying upon their own kind. And racism is not confined to blacks—many others have borne the brunt of it. Native Americans, Maoris, Armenians, Jews, Tutus, the list is long—anyone who found themselves in the minority in the place they lived in. Human nature.


Here is an anecdote: I recall, when visiting one of the Balkan countries during Communism—I think Bulgaria—being shown around a monument by a local guide. It consisted of a large circle dug into the ground, two stories below. It was open to the sky and, all around the perimeter, stood a row of larger-than-life bronze statues representing workers: one held a scythe, another a plow, a third a hammer, and so on. The whole thing was rather ghastly but, was was weirder still, was that when I asked the guide who was the sculptor who made them, she answered, ‘We don’t know.’
‘How can you not know? This is not antique, it’s recent.’
She hemmed and hawed, then she said: ‘He fell out with the regime, and his name was erased from the books.’
Such a narrow minded way of looking at things.


Things that happened, happened. Should we try to erase the past? I think it’s better to reserve our energies for improving the present—with more efficient laws, and with reform, not destruction. Thousands of people are slaves still, in the 21st century—and they’re not all black. There’s a huge immigration crisis, worldwide. There are people now, today, who have made fortunes exploiting others, but everyone sucks up to them, because their money gives them power, and they also take good care to make large donations to charities and universities. There are huge corporations operating on the returns of sweatshops and the like.

Is it a solution to stop reading Rudyard Kipling, or showing Gone With The Wind?

I’m curious to know what everyone thinks about all this.

Day trip to Mycenae

Greece is now opening up its borders to travelers, so if any of you are thinking of taking the plunge, here’s another wonderful place to visit. For the rest, a little more armchair traveling on a ThrowbackThursday, from a trip taken in 2016

Letters from Athens

In the Iliad, Homer described Mycenae as ‘a city rich in gold.’ It was the legendary home of King Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks who went to Troy to fight the Trojan War. The Greeks of classical antiquity idealized the Mycenaean period as a glorious period of heroes, closeness of the gods and material wealth, as described in the Trojan Epic cycle.
In 1876, amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann set out to prove the historical accuracy of the Iliad by identifying the places described by Homer. Using the text of Pausanias, the second-century A.D. traveller, as his guide, he excavated the site at Mycenae, discovering the deep shaft graves where bodies were buried dressed in lavishly decorated shrouds adorned with gold items and diadems and with their faces covered by masks of gold or electrum (such as the Mask of Agamemnon, below).

Copy of the mask of Agamemenon Copy of the mask of Agamemenon

However…

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All Lives Matter

On this last day of May I am shocked and saddened by the events in America. Living through a worldwide pandemic was supposed to make us kinder to one another. But, sadly, human nature does not change.



George Floyd was killed by a man who did not even mind being filmed while doing it. He has two kids at home. He was not armed, and there was no proof he’d done something wrong.

 



I remember reading a post on the blog of a virtual friend who has an autistic son. He’s doing well, but what happens when he’s old enough to start going out on his own? Where she lives in America autistic people carry a medical card, which explains why sometimes their behavior can seem unpredictable, or even aggressive—especially when challenged, or scared. Well, her fear is, that if her son is stopped by the police and he puts his hand in his pocket to get his card, he could be shot. Just because he’s black.



To me, this beggars belief. I am so lucky to have lived, and live, in places where you can walk the streets more or less safely.
We do take a lot for granted. And we must take a stand against this kind of cruelty.

All the pictures are imaginary portraits by the wonderful British artist Lynette Yadom-Boakye.

 

Road trip to Metéora

Throwback Thursday and time for some armchair traveling, for want of the real thing. I thought some of the newer readers would enjoy an account of this road trip taken in 2015, to the magical site of Meteora.

Letters from Athens

Taking advantage of the brilliant weather, we headed out for an overnight excursion. Our destination: Metéora, the largest complex of Orthodox monasteries in Greece, outside of Mount Athos.
The monasteries are built atop almost inaccessible sandstone peaks, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios River and Pindos Mountain, in central Greece.

image

Monks settled on these ‘columns of the sky‘ from the 11th century onwards. Twenty-four monasteries were built, despite incredible difficulties, at the time of the great revival of the eremitic ideal in the 15th century. Today there are six left.

To break up the four-hour journey, we stopped for a snack in the town of Domokos. The crisis is apparent here as well, with a lot of empty shops in the central street. An abrasive woman in a red pickup honked as we tried to park the car. The taverna…

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Weird Fish

It seems the Mediterranean is now full of ‘alien’ fish, which decided to emigrate to better seas, and so swam there from the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal.

They have thrived to the extent they are now threatening the eco-system, being both prolific breeders and aggressive towards native species; but they are already too numerous to eradicate.
So, what is the next best solution? Why, eating them of course, and thus killing two birds (fish?) with one stone: hopefully equilibrium will be established, while at the same time we can complement our calamari with rabbitfish, trumpetfish and lionfish.

 

Lionfish



At least this is the original idea of Greek conservationists, who have come up with a cookbook of recipes, so that tourists can be encouraged to try these new species. ‘Recipes for Edible Alien Species’ is published by two conservation organizations, the Cyclades Preservation Fund and iSea.

In the book, written in both Greek and English, Greek chefs have paired these species with classic Mediterranean ingredients like olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and parsley. While it doesn’t have the glamour of a Nigella cookbook, the recipes sound delicious: it would probably be a good idea to take some good photos of the finished dishes and post them on Instagram. You can find the cookbook here

 

Rabbitfish


Tempting locals and tourists to eat the invaders will help the environment, but also fishermen to make a living. A campaign called Pick the Alien, launched in a few islands such as Santorini, Amorgos, and Zakynthos, aims to encourage people to choose these fish on the menu of their favorite fish taverna.

Would I try them? Of course. I’m always in favour of new tastes, as long as it’s not fried insects or monkey brains, even if the former are also touted as a help for the environment.

MarySmith’sPlace -The Buddha of Bamiyan Afghanistan Adventures#33

Staying on the armchair traveling theme, I’ve been avidly following Mary Smith’s adventures in Afghanistan. Take a look at her blog, her posts are also full of wonderful photos.

Mary Smith's Place

Bamiyan, Autumn 1989

IMG_0011 (Custom) The view from my window

A murmur of male voices penetrated my subconscious in the morning. A row of men wearing expressions of ill-concealed curiosity gazed in the direction of my sleeping bag. A ferocious glare from Khudadad had them gathering up their belongings and murmuring goodbyes as they hurriedly left the room. The cook, in a grease spattered apron, was busy at his stove, for some reason situated on the veranda overlooking the street. Breakfast smelt good.

Through an inch deep layer of oil I recognised a fried egg, under which was a kind of meat stew layered with slices of fried tomatoes. Scooping up some of this mess with a piece of fresh, warm nan I tasted cautiously. It was delicious. Cholesterol and calorie laden as any cooked breakfast should be, by the time I had mopped clean the dish with a final piece of…

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