There are a number of different sea turtle species that are going extinct (six out of seven, to be exact). Due to illegal trade, fishing, poaching, pollution, and other factors, sea turtles face the possibility of extinction -- and that's no exaggeration.
So how can you help? Volunteering with sea turtles abroad is a major step towards their conservation and doubles as an enriching experience for yourself. Not only will you gain knowledge to share with your community and make a positive difference, but you’ll also have an adventure that you'll be able to tell at home.
Where to Go
There are a few countries known for their sea turtle conservation programs. Joining one of these programs can be your first step in saving sea turtles. Here are some places to consider:
Costa Rica is not shy about its love for sea turtles (the good and the bad). While the majority of the community and government are fighting to save sea turtles and preserve their habitats, other people see sea turtles and their eggs as a delicacy and go out of their way to eat this “special treat” -- even though it is illegal!
Through volunteering you can help save their nests and eggs, raise awareness about this ill fate, and turn things around for sea turtles.
Several organizations have programs to support sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica.
Not often considered as a prime sea turtle destination, Australia is home to the only known nesting beaches of the Flatback Sea Turtle, the most geographically limited of the seven sea turtle species.
Australia has a comprehensive conservation and marine science establishment, and mature laws and processes surrounding turtle conservation.
For those who want to volunteer in turtle conservation but are concerned about culture shock or being somewhere too unfamiliar, Australia is a great chance to test the waters with conservation volunteering in a thoroughly western setting.
Known for the Galapagos Islands (and the eponymous tortoises, famous but very distant relations to sea turtles) and its magnificent forests, Ecuador is also home to major nesting grounds for the Pacific populations of some of the most highly endangered sea turtle species.
Here you’ll have access to mature research and conservation programs, as well as the crossroads of Colombia, Peru, and the Galapagos.
The Seychelles Islands offer an opportunity for a different kind of turtle conservation experience. Along with turtles, the Seychelles house a tremendous range of relatively easily accessible marine environments, ideally suited to careful research or leisurely exploration for the more aquatically inclined.
Here you will have the very nearly unique experience of working with turtles that come to nest and lay their eggs during the daytime, including the beautifully colorful Hawksbill and Green sea turtles. The islands are heavily invested in environmental protection and ecotourism and offer a lot of related opportunities.
You may be shocked to see Spain on the list of sea turtle programs, but the Valencia region’s rapidly growing tourism and water sport activities are taking a toll on the sea and marine fauna.
Sea turtle conservation programs and marine volunteer projects here are committed to educating people on how to remedy (and hopefully reverse) the effects of their environmental footprint.
Projects like the marine conservation program allow volunteers to live in a coastal town with shared facilities. Over the course of the program, participants clean the sea, survey marine wildlife and habitats, and work in the community.
Similar to Costa Rica’s problem, sea turtle endangerment in Sri Lanka stems directly from poaching and fishing. While the beaches and relaxation opportunities are appealing to volunteers, conservation programs are very serious about their projects.
In these programs, volunteers can expect to actively participate in beach patrol, feeding, food preparation, cleaning, and hatchery monitoring. With 5-6 hour weekday shifts, volunteers can enjoy their weekend free time exploring the city.
What kind of work and experience should volunteers expect abroad?
If you are thinking about signing up as a sea turtle conservation volunteer, here are what your responsibilities might look like and some realities you need to be okay with:
- You will participate in relocating nests when you discover them to help protect them.
- You may need to help build new hatcheries for turtle eggs.
- Volunteers routinely measure turtles and conduct health checks.
- You will likely be a part of daytime and nighttime beach patrol, along with beach cleanup.
- Your volunteer quarters might just be a tent or a shared room. It could be a nice apartment or even a homestay, but it all depends on the program you choose.
- You’ll need to speak a bit of the local language (language classes might be an option).
- You might need to rescue a turtle -- or you might not see a wild turtle at all.
Volunteering with sea turtles can be an amazing memory to make, but it's helpful to take into consideration that your expectations may differ from reality before you dive headfirst into a program. Ultimately, look for a program that will allow you to make the most positive difference possible.
Planning Your Trip
You’ll soon find that planning for a volunteer trip isn’t as easy as it sounds. It isn’t going to be a luxury vacation. But how un-luxury will it really be? You’re still paying for it, after all -- right?
Well, most of the money you are paying goes towards funding the program to continue their research, maintain their facilities, pay the people that work there full-time, and your room and board. As mentioned before, there are a few housing options based on what program you take. Here's an idea of what to look for:
Depending on the program length and price, you may get one of the following housing options:
- A tent set up: some programs work right on the beach or near the coast and have minimal facilities.
- A bungalow: another form of housing, bungalows are often found at the edge of the jungle or on the coast.
- A shared apartment: a typical housing arrangement for programs in a modern town.
- A homestay: a typical housing arrangement for volunteer programs near villages and traditional communities.
- Volunteer quarters: some programs are bigger and receive enough funding to build their own volunteer quarters. This type of housing may be similar to hostels.
- Housing not included: sometimes housing is not included at all and volunteers are expected to arrange their own accommodations (usually program prices are cheaper, in this case).
Things to Look for in a Program
Before you book a program, be sure to check their reviews and certifications.
Most reputable programs will have a full layout of the program itinerary, responsibilities, and package inclusions. Be wary of listings that are vague and make the itinerary seem too much like a vacation. Those programs may be dishonest, unreliable, or doing more harm than good for the cause.
If you are interested in a number of volunteering programs and want to get involved further, do not be afraid to speak up and inquire about other opportunities. Some programs offer hybrid projects where you can work with other initiatives as well. For an additional fee, some may also turn your volunteer project into an internship and take you off the field for a few days and offer access to the office or non-profit business side of things.