Volunteering with sea turtles is a once in a lifetime experience. Whether you’re already familiar with the endangerment issues, or are just looking to spend some time volunteering outdoors, you’ve come to the right place. The sad truth of the matter is that many species of sea turtles throughout the world are becoming extinct, but the good news is that, thanks to a handful of programs, we have the opportunity to make a positive impact and to save the lives of these amazing sea creatures. No previous experience is required; all you’ll need is a go-getter attitude, some sunscreen, and a love for nature.
If you’re ready to set aside your first-world comforts and desires and help some animals in need, then this is the opportunity for you. Instead of staying at a tourist resort, consider using your next tropical vacation to make a positive impact by helping turtles, crocodiles, whales, sharks, and other endangered marine wildlife.
Popular destinations for sea turtle volunteer projects include Mexico, Vanuatu, Costa Rica, and Turkey. As sea turtle conservation becomes a greater focus for volunteer organizations, the diversity of volunteer programs available is growing. Before you start shouting "Righteous! Righteous!" and set sail on the West Australian Current, read on for tips on how to volunteer with sea turtles!
Why Sea Turtle Conservation is Important
Six of the world's seven sea turtle species are classified as ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered, meaning they have a large chance of becoming extinct in the near future. The main causes for their possible demise are accidental capture, ocean pollution, intentional hunting, and even commercial coastal development.
Of the seven main types of creatures, five of them, the Olive Ridley, Green, Loggerhead, Leatherback, and Hawksbill can be found in nearby Central America (a short jaunt for a quick volunteer trip!). These sea creatures can come from as far away as Japan and Indonesia. Your work is needed to help promote ecotourism in local areas as many locals are used to fishing and poaching these animals for meat and eggs.
Building new commercial structures can destroy the turtles’ habitats and even small things like plastic bags and local streetlights can be dangerous. The pollution is often mistaken as food, causing the turtles to ingest items that will do damage to their bodies. Further, artificial light from homes, buildings, and hotels can distract the turtles, leading them to stray away from their normal habitats.
The Drawbacks of Volunteering with Sea Turtles
An unfortunate reality of volunteering abroad is that it oftentimes falls victim to becoming a "voluntourism" adventure versus actually contributing sustainable good. Be picky when choosing the opportunity you wish to pursue when volunteering with sea turtles. Keep in mind that sometimes businesses do more harm than good by increasing the number of people in the area, leading to severe environmental impacts.
Volunteer projects have the potential to be exploitive when companies prefer to make money in lieu of making a positive change - sometimes companies will even prolong the volunteer projects in order to maximize the length of time they can recruit outside help. Be leery of companies that feel to sales-y.
Since training for projects may take a few days, short-term volunteers don’t have a lot of time to make an impact. Be sure to weigh the pro's and con's of short-term programs before committing. On a personal level, volunteering abroad does run the risk of involving yourself emotionally. You may find yourself deeply connected to your volunteer experiences, and become frustrated when others are not as compassionate about the issue.
Popular Programs for Volunteering with Sea Turtles
There are various organizations that devote their time and resources to this specific cause of helping out sea turtles and appreciate any help they can get. By educating the community, you will help ensure that the turtles are provided with vital feeding grounds and nesting areas, and are protected from any human predators. You may also feel a sense of privilege for getting to work with these creatures that may one day vanish.
While there are many volunteer programs available, we recommend the following companies, which have been approved by Go Overseas and boast impressive reviews:
Caribbean Reef Buddy
Caribbean Reef Buddy offers the kind of volunteer program we love: it gives you a chance to have a meaningful impact on conservation efforts in Grenada, and balances that with a chance to experience the beauty that the Caribbean has to offer. Even better, this is a great program if you're looking to get Scuba certified and want to have a positive impact while you do.
Known for their sustainable conservation projects, SEE Turtles organizes volunteer opportunities in the field of eco-tourism. Fittingly, their most popular activity includes working directly with sea turtles, but if you’re interested in other types of animals, don’t fret! They also allow volunteers to work with whales, sharks, and other marine wildlife. Programs with SEE Turtles are available in Costa Rica, Trinidad, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
Your first night is spent in La Paz, a city on the eastern coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. The next day you’ll be transferred to Magdalena Bay, which is on the Pacific coast, and will spend the next few days monitoring sea turtles and gray whales. Prepare for some early mornings, as you’ll wake up before the sun rises in order to monitor, weigh, measure, and release the turtles in captivity. Throughout the day you’ll have the option of going whale watching, kayaking, hiking, or fishing, and on the seventh (and last) day of the program you’ll return to La Paz and be wishing the trip hadn’t ended so soon!
Global Vision International (GVI)
This program allows you to dive right in - literally! Throughout your time as a volunteer with GVI you will become a qualified scuba diver and will monitor one of the most famous barrier reefs in the world, second only in size to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (home to a myriad of marine conservation projects). When not in the sea, you’ll work on shore helping turtles, crocodiles, and educating the local community.
The goal of this program is to minimize damage to the environment. As such, amenities are very basic; electricity is only available for parts of the day, and buckets are used for showers and toilets. Chores are split up amongst participants and can include helping in the kitchen, preparing the scuba gear, and cleaning communal areas. You’ll have a chance to scuba dive at least once per day, seeing rare species in the nearby reef, and you won’t go hungry as local chefs prepare daily meals. Programs range from four to twelve weeks.
Volunteering Solutions cares deeply for the betterment of animals. In their Turtle Conservation Program in Costa Rica, you'll help this mission by working in hatcheries to help sustain turtle populations and protect turtle nests from poachers. You'll participate in activities such as egg harvesting, keeping the beach free of trash, and night patrolling beaches to ward off poachers. Note that you'll need to be in good physical shape to participate -- get ready to work hard!
You will be picked up from the airport by the local coordinator, where you will stay with a host family while you complete orientation. After that, you'll live in an area close to the beach. You won't always be working, though. In your free time, you can visit active volcanoes, national parks, or relax on the beach. Programs vary in length.
I don't know about you, but "Under the Sea" is already stuck in my head! Wildlife volunteering is sure to have many surprises. Your willingness to get involved and to help keep these animals alive and prosperous is greatly needed and deeply appreciated, as these sea creatures are in serious danger and truly need our assistance.
Look for volunteer projects with sea turtles.Photo Credits: mario_ruckh, 350.org, and USFWS/Southeast.