Learn the in's & outs of sea turtle conservation
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!
In honor of World Turtle Day, 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!
4 tips before becoming a turtle conservation volunteer
There are plenty of reasons why you should volunteer with sea turtles. However, before you sign up for sea turtle volunteer programs that celebrate turtles and help them swim another day (#righteous!), know these deets:
1. 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 volunteer 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.
2. 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, sea turtle volunteer programs are 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.
3. It’s not all about counting eggs.
For the less research-inclined or more education-oriented turtle conservation volunteer, 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?
4. 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. Save the turtles—but with the help of experts.
The pros & cons of sea turtle volunteer projects
We’re glad you’re following along, but just in case:
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!
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.
Next steps to volunteering with sea turtles abroad
Now that you have the inside scoop, know where many volunteers choose to spend their time, and know common causes that volunteers are working to eradicate, it's time to choose who you want to volunteer abroad with! Choosing a program isn't as hard as it sounds, especially if you follow these steps:
Decide where to go. Figuring out where YOU should volunteer with sea turtles is paramount. Have a short list of locations that sound ideal for your goals and skills (i.e. if you're nervous about language barriers, avoid Guatemala and the like). Don't let a fear of too many Finding Nemo references hold you back—choose a place that's right for you.
Choose from the best sea turtle volunteer programs. Pay attention to past participants’ reviews, program/university reputation, location, and how the project's needs match your skills. Some programs may even share contact info for ambassadors or past participants if you want the REAL dirt. Here are more considerations to make as you figure out how to choose the right volunteer program for you. Pro tip: You can use MyGoAbroad to compare programs side-by-side.
Plan your finances. Sort out funding before you go to afford daily essentials and splurge on travel (in addition to program costs and airfare). Be sure to raise a little extra money to donate to the organization that you'll be working with. Learning how to fund your volunteer abroad adventure is essential prior to your travels!
Get prepared! Preparing to volunteer abroad is as fun as it sounds. With the days til departure number dwindling and your excitement boiling, it can be easy to overlook the details. Lean on us to help guide you through your pre-departure process—that's what we're here for.
Your meaningful life abroad will be turtle-y awesome 🐢☀️🌴
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.