Turtle conservation vacations guide

Turtle volunteering is like being a midwife, minder and marine conservationist all at the same time. One minute you’re watching as rare leatherbacks dig their nests, or standing guard over hatchlings as they make their way to the ocean. The next, you’re filling in spreadsheets with data that will be shared around the world.

Because turtles are still seriously endangered. Whether by climate change, fishing nets or poaching, they face many threats – one of the most serious being the destruction of nesting beaches for development. Miraculously, female turtles – whether they are green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback or olive ridley – return to the beaches where they were themselves born to lay their own eggs.

Turtle volunteer projects aim to protect these habitats, nesting turtles and their hatchlings so that populations can thrive once again. These trips often involve basic accommodation, sharing cooking and cleaning rotas, and collecting data night and day. They’re rarely glamorous, but there’s plenty of joy to be found in helping to save some of the world’s rarest and most magnificent marine creatures.

Find out more in our turtle conservation travel guide.

What we rate & what we don’t in turtle conservation

Underrated

Switching off

These days, “connecting” can be all about being online, checking social media and uploading beautifully filtered photos. But as a turtle volunteer, Wi-Fi may be limited and flash photography is banned on night patrols. Instead, your connections will be with nature, spending days (and nights) on the sand and in the sea. You’ll also connect with local communities, tourists and like-minded volunteers.

Working with communities

Volunteers might 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 despite persisting beliefs. It might not be as Instagrammable – but it’s a long-term and effective solution, and it really works.

Paying your way

Some people are put off volunteering projects because they can be quite expensive. After all, you’re volunteering your time and effort, so why should you have to pay for the pleasure? The answer is that these are often permanent projects that need funds from paying volunteers so they can continue to operate. There’s a cost involved with every volunteer too, from training time to equipment. The best things in life aren’t always free.

Good footwear

Working on beaches, you might think that 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 may not be cold, but mosquitoes are extra thirsty after dusk.
Rated

Costa Rica

You can volunteer with sea turtles in several places along the beautiful Pacific Coast, so you can choose the style of trip that suits you – whether that’s remote and rustic or more community-focused. Alternatively, join a local scientist for a week-long “expedition” monitoring leatherbacks on isolated black-sand beaches.

Family volunteering

Helping out on a sea turtle conservation project 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 by a beach. You may 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.

Greece

The island of Kefalonia was an idyll long before Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was published. For the endangered loggerhead sea turtles that nest on its beaches, however, it’s not so great. They continue to face numerous threats here, but determined volunteer projects are having an impact, and every year thousands of hatchlings make it down to the water’s edge and, perhaps, a future.

River cleans

Helping to clean up beaches is all the rage right now and sadly it’s likely to be necessary for many years to come. Plastic waste is a major threat to turtles and other wildlife but, if we want to really make a difference to beaches, we need to stop it getting into seas and oceans in the first place. Look out for volunteer projects near you that work on cleaning rivers, as this can have a massive impact.
Overrated

Tortoiseshell

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.

Beachfront hotels

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 by noise and release their eggs at sea, while hatchlings, disorientated by artificial lights, may never find their way into the water. Do your research about how sensible these accommodations are – read more on our responsible tourism page.

Captive breeding

Breeding endangered species in captivity may seem like a good idea – but in practise, it rarely results in reintroduction to 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 – less often nowadays, thankfully – from selling turtle meat.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Turtle conservation or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

What does turtle conservation travel involve?

Night-time monitoring

A lot of the action takes place at night. Much of the work involves monitoring the mother turtles as they crawl ashore after sunset – measuring their shells and tracks, tagging the turtles and checking if they have visited the beach before. Depending on the location, your presence may also be a powerful deterrent to poachers who want to harvest the meat, shells or eggs.

Protecting nests & eggs

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. Wherever possible, we would only promote the first situation – most hatcheries are far from ideal.

Clearing the way for 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 a 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.

Education & awareness

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 sea turtle conservation projects work closely with local communities, run after-school workshops and train local people to be rangers and conservationists themselves, creating a 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 community and the way of life there,” says Anne Smellie, from our leading turtle conservation partner Oyster Worldwide, about volunteering in Costa Rica.

“As a volunteer in Costa Rica you are living amongst local people; that’s part of the amazing experience. You should be prepared to have less access to Wi-Fi and to sleep in a room with a fan rather than air con, share a bedroom, and eat quite simple meals every day because that’s often what locals do! There is some variation – projects do try very hard to accommodate – but people with big expectations shouldn’t necessarily 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 luxury then it makes it very difficult for you to settle in.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: Isabella Jusková] [Underrated: Frontierofficial] [Rated: Phuket@photographer.net] [Overrated: Lisa Joanes] [Anne Smellie quote: Frontierofficial]