Working with sea turtle is one of the most popular ways to volunteer, and for good reason. First and most importantly, they need the help. There are thousands of beaches and ocean habitats around the world where these animals nest, migrate through, or live and researchers and conservationists need a lot of support to cover this ground (or water). Second, you don’t have to be a biologist or turtle expert to help. Good physical fitness and a good attitude are the only real qualifications anyone needs, training takes care of the rest. Finally, working with these charismatic reptiles is a great way for a student or early career conservationist or biologist to get experience and build a resume.
Without help from volunteers, sea turtles would be in big trouble. Six of the seven species around the world are threatened or endangered due to things like people eating their eggs and meat, turning their shells into jewelry and other products, entanglement in fishing gear, and plastic pollution are all major threats to their survival. Volunteers most commonly help on nesting beaches, helping to walk the beaches during the evenings to look for turtles and taking care of the nests. Some projects offer opportunities to work with in-water research where turtles are caught at sea to study and release. These animals nest in dozens of countries around the world and many have opportunities to volunteer.
Benefits & Challenges of Sea Turtle Volunteering
Most sea turtle research and conservation programs are understaffed and underfunded. By having volunteers, these programs are able to better cover long stretches of beach during the long nights, keeping poachers at bay and helping hatchlings make it safely to the water. Many organizations also help to fund their work through the fees that volunteers pay and having long-term visitors helps benefit nearby communities, whose support for turtle conservation is critical to reducing the threats they face.
While it may seem idyllic to walk on tropical beaches in the moonlight, this is not an easy job. Volunteers may need to walk several miles a night on soft sand, which is harder than it sounds (though you get in great shape). Patrols still happen in the rain and in many places, you’ll have to deal with bugs like mosquitoes and sand fleas. Working with wild animals also can entail stomach-turning situations, like digging out a nest infected with parasitic flies or dealing with injured or dead turtles that wash ashore. Sleep is sporadic with the night time schedule. But if you can put up with these things, it just may be the best experience of your life.
While the majority of organizations that run these programs have the best interests of the turtles at heart, some of them are geared more towards tourists and making money than the best interests of the animals and local communities. And not all programs take safety as seriously as they should, so volunteers need to make sure that they are choosing effective and ethical programs.
What you need to know about turtle projects
A hatchery is an area set aside for moving the nests to watch full-time. These are an important tool for beaches where there is a high risk of the eggs being collected for sale on the black market, but they are not always necessary and in some cases, are not well managed.
- Water tanks: Hatchlings are born with yolk sacks that allow them to go a few days without looking for food. They can focus on swimming as far out to sea as possible to find cover. But if the hatchlings are kept for some time, they lose that advantage and are at a disadvantage when going to sea, because without yolk sacks they need to search for food, leaving them vulnerable to predators.
- Headstarting: The best conservation practice according to biologists is to get hatchlings as quickly as possible into the water. Some hatcheries, primarily in Asia, keep turtles until they grow, assuming they will be more likely to survive, but this strategy often ends up with unhealthy turtles. Headstarting in many places is a way for tourists or volunteers to have something to see and work to do but is not a good way to support their conservation. Very often the turtles don’t get fed a proper diet, are exposed to diseases and poor conditions. As a result, they become weak and sick.
- Handling: Hatchlings are sensitive and ideally be handled with gloves on by properly trained people. Things like chemical sunscreens, insect repellant or tobacco residue from cigarettes can affect the hatchlings. Thus, either gloves or people who know to avoid these things are important. Otherwise the hatchlings are likely to get sick from the chemicals or it can affect their immune systems.
- Releasing: Hatchlings should be released during the evening so that they are less likely to be spotted by predators. Some places (often hotels that want to give people photo opportunities) release them during the day, which makes them more vulnerable to the heat and predators. They should be released at different parts of the beach each time so that fish and other predators can’t predict where they will be.
- White lights: bright white lights on the beach should be avoided as much as possible. That includes white flashlights and especially camera flashes. This light can bother and deter nesting turtles and attract or blind hatchlings. Most projects require the use of red lights, which are much less intrusive to the animals.
- Group Sizes: While there is no specific standard for the number of people that can be around a turtle while nesting, people need to be managed to avoid impacting the turtles. Nobody should approach a turtle while it is looking for a nest or digging its body pit, only once it starts digging the nest, when it does into a trance-like state, to avoid disturbance. Everyone should stay behind the flippers and only trained people allowed to touch the turtle or collect data.
Volunteer Companies & Organizations
Wherever possible, volunteer directly with locally-based conservation and research organizations instead of for-profit companies. More of the fees will go towards the programs and they are more likely to have the best interests of the turtles in mind. They are often much less expensive as well, many companies dramatically mark-up volunteer fees from what the managing organizations charge.
Working on remote nesting beaches, volunteers should never patrol alone, especially where poaching is a problem. In addition, volunteers should never work alone in hatcheries that are a long distance from research stations. Trained staff should be present for all patrols and work shifts. Volunteers should also never engage with someone who wants to take an egg or turtle, that can be a dangerous situation and no turtle or egg is worth getting injured for. Also, any program should have a safety plan that they can share that details how injuries are handled, where the nearest medical facility is, and ensure that staff are trained to handle emergencies.
Volunteers are ambassadors for the conservation and research programs and need to represent them well when in local communities. Respect for the communities the projects are near is critical to maintaining a good relationship and volunteers can be a great example for other travelers as well.
Some tips for volunteers
- Avoid turtle shell products: This may seem like an obvious one, but turtle shell products are not always obvious and vendors may not tell a shopper where the products came from. Check out this handy guide for recognizing and avoiding these products.
- Plastic waste: Plastic waste is a huge and growing threat to sea turtles and can be a major problem to communities who rely on tourism. Avoid single use plastic whenever possible and make sure to recycle or properly dispose of any plastic you use. You can also participate in or even help organize clean-ups to make the beaches better for both turtles and people.
- Community interactions: Be sure respect local customs and dress codes. Your program should educate volunteers on how to avoid offending people in the community. Spend your money in locally-owned establishments where possible. Avoid excessive partying that may disrupt residents lives and be sure to follow all local laws, including those related to drug and alcohol use. You can have fun while volunteering but don’t let a positive experience turn into a negative one with bad decisions.