The Good, the Bad, and the Stinky: What You Need to Know Before Volunteering with Turtles

by Julia Kitlinski Hong

Finding Nemo’s spacey surfer dude portrayals aside, sea turtles are no duds. These magnificent sea creatures are crucial contributors to the ocean’s ecosystems; they may seem small, but they are mighty. Their existence helps promote the maintenance of seagrass beds, coral reef growth, and stabilization of beach dunes along with vegetation growth on seashores.

Sea turtles are no newcomers to the party, since they made their grand entrance at least 100 million years ago. Sadly, a majority of the species, including the Leatherback, the Hawksbill, and the Kemp’s Ridley, are endangered as a result of pollution, climate change, and overfishing. Luckily, big-hearted-turtle-loving volunteers like yourself can help out with the preservation of this species in a number of significant ways!









Turtles stretching toward sunshine

Turtles are small, but mighty, creatures

In honor of World Turtle Day on May 23rd, 2016, there is no better time to see how you can make a difference in a lil’ turtle’s life. Volunteering with sea turtles is not only an opportunity to help preserve the dwindling population, but also assist with bigger marine conservation projects.

Keep reading to get the full rundown on the good, the bad, and the stinky; everything you need to know before you volunteer with turtles!

Everything You Need to Know to Help Our Well-Shelled Friends

There are plenty of reasons why you should volunteer with sea turtles. However, before you sign up for a volunteer project that celebrates turtles and helps them swim another day (#righteous!), know these deets:

Get on their turf.

Where in the world are these sea turtles you may ask? Well, the sea is a good place to start. As you know, these little guys have a taste for the more luxurious things in life, calling white, sandy beaches home sweet home, so a sunny, coastal locale is a given.

Five of the seven species of sea turtles, the Olive Ridley, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, Leatherback, and Green, are mostly found in Central America. If you have ever wanted to go to this region of the world, there is no better excuse than to save the turtles! In general, marine conservation volunteer programs are located in more rural areas than bigger cities, since sea turtles like their privacy and the peace and quiet outside the hustle and bustle of big cities. Some of the most popular destinations around the globe include Malaysia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. Sunshine is guaranteed (but, not always because we don’t control the weather, Pudge the fish does!) during almost any marine conservation volunteer program.

Psst! Not all sea turtle conservation volunteer programs are made equal; it’s important that you, as a volunteer, do due diligence in researching high-quality organizations that are committed to sustainable efforts and working seamlessly in local communities. Read reviews, and check out verified volunteer organizations on GoAbroad.com, including International Volunteer HQ, Frontier, and GoEco.









Loggerhead turtle swimming underwater

Turtles are crucial contributors to the ocean’s ecosystems

No divas allowed.

Those with a sensitive sniffer or a strict sleep schedule, be warned. You may have visions of watching thousands of baby sea turtles scurrying to towards their new ocean home as you cheer them on, but this is just one of many rewarding aspects of a turtle conservation program. Daily tasks also include work related to attending to the care of the eggs, counting them, helping build a hatchery, relocating them to a local hatchery to be incubated, and helping out with general tasks within the hatchery itself.

Volunteering with turtles is not for anyone with a low tolerance for stink. These creatures may seem cute and snuggly on NatGeo, but up-close and personal their smell might keep you from cuddling with them. If you are easily adverse to strong smells, the stench of a population of sea turtles may be a rude awakening!

However, it’s a great opportunity for early birds and night owls. Wake-up calls in the wee hours of the morning are going to be your new normal since collecting data and weighing or monitoring injured sea turtles and their eggs are best done at this time or late at night. This may seem like one of the more monotonous tasks, but it is of equal importance; population growth and care is carefully monitored to see where improvements can be made.

It’s not all about counting eggs.

For the less research-inclined or more education-oriented, there are also public conservation efforts where you will help raise awareness within the local community. You will educate locals on the negative impact that humans can have on sea turtle habitats, especially with particular focus on proper trash disposal and the effect of commercial structures nearby. A big plus is if you speak the local language, since this will allow you to communicate more effectively with locals. And if you don’t already have a background in the native language, make efforts to learn important phrases to connect with locals and really send your message home.

With all the hard work happening in the morning and night, afternoons are reserved for downtime, exploring the local nearby towns, scuba diving and snorkeling excursions, and relaxing on the local beaches. That in and of itself worth a few smelly turtle-filled mornings and nights, don’t you think?









Turtle making ugly face

Up close and personal with turtles is more than just “cute”

No experience necesito.

The beauty of volunteering with sea turtles is all levels of conservation enthusiasts can participate to support this particular cause. Whether you majored in conservation in undergrad, or just took a marine biology course that sparked your interest, a positive attitude and a willingness to learn new skills and get your hands dirty is more than enough.

It’s also important to be open-minded and respectful to the community that calls the area home. Learning about local customs and beliefs through literature and talking with other volunteers who have been there before you will help you understand how to best communicate with locals surrounding conservancy issues. It ensures that there is a mutual level of respect between you both in a more general sense, since this will be your adopted home for the duration of your stay. 

In most marine conservation programs, there will be local experts that are well-respected within their community for their knowledge and can be a bridge between you and the local community. They are also great teachers who can help guide you through anything from how to properly collect eggs to understanding the significance of sea turtles in relation to their community.

IN SUMMARY…

We’re glad you’re following along, but just in case:

The Good

For those pursuing a career or degree in marine conservation, this first hand experience is invaluable. No textbook can compare to being able to observe your topics in their natural habitats. Seeing these little guys in action will give you not only a deeper understanding of these amazing creatures, but also allow you to understand their crucial role in the ocean’s ecosystem as a whole. For anyone who has a strong interest in conservation volunteering, this experience can help give you insight into how marine conservation is handled around the globe. It may even inspire you to continue to volunteer with local conservation groups once you are back home!









Turtles chilling on the beach at sunset

The rewards of volunteering with turtles are many, even if it means early mornings and late nights

The Bad (and often stinky)

The growing popularity of marine conservation volunteering means that, unfortunately, some programs are driven more by profit than by making a significant difference in the affected communities. It is important to be aware of companies that seem flawless in their advertisement and a bit pushy when trying to sell their product. To ensure that you have signed up with an ethically sound, sustainable volunteer program, make sure to read reviews on GoAbroad and contact former volunteers for additional insight and any lingering questions you may have.

There is also concern surrounding the environmental impact of having more individuals in a locale where environmental issues are already a concern. If you are interested in volunteering in marine conservation, make sure that you are aware of how your presence will affect the local environment. It’s also important to think about the duration of your stay and how effective short-term volunteering really is, versus a longer stint that can have larger results in the end. Most marine conservation volunteer programs last anywhere from a few weeks to longer stretches of a few months. 

Volunteering with sea turtles is a unique experience that allows volunteers to gain insight into the importance of marine conservation around the world.

Whether you choose to volunteer in marine conservation in South America or Asia, caring for these creatures will open your eyes to the importance of advocacy for endangered species and give you time to preserve their natural habitats for future generations. Like the Lorax speaks for the trees, you’ll speak for the turtles.