Turtle conservation vacations guide
2 MINUTE SUMMARY
What we rate and what we don’t
OUR BEST & WORST OF TURTLE CONSERVATION HOLIDAYS
These days, “connecting” is all about being online, checking social media and uploading beautifully filtered photos. But as a turtle volunteer, WiFi may be limited and flash photography is banned on night patrols. Instead, you’ll connect with nature, spending days (and nights) on the sand and in the sea. You’ll connect with local communities, school children and likeminded volunteers. That’s the kind of connection we love.
Working with communities
Most volunteers have visions of themselves standing guard over nesting mothers and vulnerable hatchlings. But often, the most valuable volunteer work can be in education: teaching children about ecosystems and turtles, helping communities find alternative incomes to selling meat and eggs, explaining that eggs are not aphrodisiacs. It might not be as Instagrammable – but it’s a long term and effective solution, and it really works.
Turtle conservation in Ghana is very much in its infancy still – which is all the more reason to volunteer on its beaches, facing out into the Gulf of Guinea. On these sands, whipped by Saharan winds, you’re far more likely to be patrolling alongside local rangers than other tourists, as you protect nesting leatherbacks and olive ridley turtles from poachers, fishing boats and heavy nets hauled across the sand.
Living on a beach, you might think the only footwear worth packing is flip flops. But don’t underestimate how far you will be walking on night patrols. Getting to the end of a 5km beach and back is 10km, and with a few detours added in, the distances soon start to add up, so make sure your feet are comfy. Long sleeves and trousers are also handy; you won’t be cold, but mosquitoes are extra thirsty after dusk, so come prepared.
In Pacuare Nature Reserve, on the Pacific coast, work with leatherbacks nesting in March-April, with hatching starting around May. Along the Pacific Coast, there are several project locations so you can choose the style of trip that suits you, from remote and rustic to more community focused. Alternatively, join a local scientist for a week long “expedition”, monitoring leatherbacks on an isolated, black sand beach.
A sea turtle conservation vacation is one of the best family volunteering placements out there. Many nesting seasons coincide with school vacations, the work is safe and easy to learn, and to top it off, you’ll be living on a beach. You many even find you’ve created a new generation of marine conservationists, scientists or activists – with lessons learned on the sand sure to stick for life.
With turtle conservation still hatching in Thailand, remote projects like one on Koh Phra Thong enable you to contribute to essential turtle monitoring and protection and escape tourist crowds, stay in homestays, educate communities and enjoy life on the beach. Not always leisurely, with packed days monitoring, teaching and restoring natural habitats – but it’s paying off, as turtle numbers are slowly rising.
A long running project in southwest Sri Lanka has been preserving nesting sites, maintaining hatcheries and caring for weaker hatchlings, releasing them only once they are strong enough to stand a chance of surviving at sea. In combination with classes in local primary school, the project has had an incredible impact on turtle numbers – this is a hugely rewarding project to volunteer on.
Richly coloured, exquisitely patterned and gently translucent; tortoiseshell has captivated craftspeople and aesthetes for centuries. But its origins are less beautiful: it comes from the shells of endangered sea turtles, mainly the hawksbill. Despite a ban on the tortoiseshell trade, there is a thriving black market, particularly in the Far East, and many turtles are killed each year for their shells, which sell for hundreds of pounds – or more.
Hatcheries with tanks
Hatcheries should only ever be used as a last resort - and even then, only in conjunction with other conservation initiatives. But one thing a hatchery should never do is use tanks to keep hatchlings; they can spread diseases and bacteria, encourage deformities, and are often really used to benefit tourists, not turtles. Read more about why we don't promote tanks.
We all love waking up right on the beach, or falling asleep to the sound of the waves. But if these are beaches where turtles nest, this can be disastrous. Mothers can become distressed and release their eggs at sea, while hatchlings, disorientated by the lights, may never find their way into the water. Do your research about how responsible these accommodations are – read more on our responsible tourism page.
Breeding endangered species in captivity may seem like a good idea – but in practice, it rarely results in reintroduction into the wild, and when it does, there can be issues with genetic stock and interbreeding. In reality, many facilities are just glorified zoos. The worst case is that they are farms – which make money from visitors, from selling the turtles on to aquariums – and finally, from the turtle meat. Yes, really.
Turtle conservation day to day
WHAT DOES THIS TRIP ENTAIL?
Some projects leave the eggs in place – but may mark the nests to avoid them being disturbed over the coming weeks. In others, volunteers gather up the eggs and bury them in protected hatcheries. Here, conditions are carefully monitored, including the temperature of the “nests” – as this affects the sex of the hatchlings.
Around six to eight weeks after the eggs have been laid, the tiny hatchlings emerge. For those on the beach, volunteers will play a vital role in protecting them from predators including crabs, birds and dogs – as well as gently guiding them towards the water if they get confused. But forget the cute selfies; as little interaction as possible is needed to ensure they remember their surroundings and are able to find their way back in decades to come. Those that emerge in the hatcheries can be gathered up in buckets and taken closer to the sea – but again, they still need to crawl several metres on their own to build up their muscles and their memories.
Volunteers often work in shifts after nightfall to ensure everyone has chance to sleep – plus it can be tiring walking for several kilometres up and down the sand. Some projects will leave the data collection until the morning, counting nests, measuring tracks and so on.
But these projects don’t just work try and mitigate the decline in sea turtle populations – many also work to prevent the root causes, and there are many. Changing fishing practices, dispelling the myth that turtle eggs are an aphrodisiac, helping poachers benefit from tourism so that they are not as tempted to sell valuable turtle shells, and raising awareness of the turtles’ vulnerability to discourage coastal communities from harvesting them for their eggs and meat are all essential if the turtles are to survive long term. Many projects work closely with local communities, run after school workshops and train local people to be rangers and conservationists themselves, creating a beneficial cycle that benefits communities, turtles, habitats and tourists. In locations where these types of initiatives have been running for several years, increases in turtle numbers have already been observed.
"You get people that expect luxury, people that aren’t prepared to just get involved with the local community and the local way of life. As a volunteer you are living amongst local people, that’s part of the amazing experience.
You are living as locals do, meeting local people, and so you should be prepared to have less access to WiFi, and to sleep in a room with a fan rather than air con, share a bedroom, eat rice and beans every day because that’s what they do! There is some variation, they do try very hard to accommodate, but people with expectations shouldn’t do this sort of thing because it is so different, you are immersing yourself into a new country, culture and all that sort of thing. If you expect things then it makes it very difficult for you to settle in."
Written by: Vicki Brown and Catherine Mack