Voluntourism With Turtles
April 24, 2023Apr 24, 2023
4 MIN READ doing good for planet
We love a good "shoefie" around here. We also really love baby sea turtles.
KEENer Stacey Anaya put them together to win a little employee photo contest we had recently as we celebrate the 20th birthday of the Newport sandal. With a photo like that, we needed to know more.
Turns out, Stacey got her baby turtle time while using her 40 hours of KEEN paid service leave to volunteer with the Caretta Research Project, an organization that works to ensure the long-term protection and full recovery of the Northwest Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle population. The Caretta Research Project focuses their efforts on monitoring sea turtles nesting on remote Wassaw Island, Georgia, which is only accessible by boat.
Stacey volunteered to help during their hatching season, which can be a particularly vulnerable time as hatchlings make their way from their semi-protected nests to the open ocean. Here's more about her experience and all the turtle hatchlings she helped:
How did you hear about/get involved with the Caretta Research Project?
During 2020 COVID and travel lockdowns, I was dreaming up future trips and for some time had been wanting to do a voluntourism adventure to use my KEEN volunteer service hours, so I started looking at opportunities near and far. Some sort of a turtle experience had also been on my list, so I narrowed the search to sea turtle volunteer opportunities and came across Caretta Research Project. I reserved my spot in Dec ’21 and was finally able to go in Aug ’22!
What was your experience like?
Amazing, eye-opening, and rustic. It was 7 full days on an undeveloped barrier island off the coast of Georgia, only accessible by boat. Volunteers use their boats to transport the scientists/biologists and volunteers to and from. The annual season (May-Sept) is broken up into two phases, Nesting Season and Hatching Season. What your work on the island looks like is determined by this. I chose to go at the end of hatching season and my days looked like this:
Nest emergence is temperature dependent; the ideal temp is between sunset and sunrise. It also naturally provides (some) predator protection in the dark. We would do a dawn patrol each morning (pre sunrise) to check for emergences in progress or signs of little hatchling tracks from a nest to ocean (wavy lines in the sand about bike tire width). And then a dusk patrol to check for the same and hope to catch a “boil.”
Between dusk and dawn patrol we would:
• Check nests that had reached maturity to hatch for any signs of activity or pending emergence (a soft depression under the sand over the nest chamber).
• Inventory nest remnants on day 5 after they emerged and record the data the Department of Natural Resources requires for daily input into the online database for Sea Turtle Nest Monitoring (chamber depth, shell count, unhatched eggs count, open unhatched eggs and record when development stopped, dead hatchling count, and any signs of predation or flooding).
• Remove protection materials from nests that were inventoried and replace nest markers on nests that hatched overnight with a red reflector instead of a white PVC pole to indicate it had hatched and we did not need to stop and check in later for signs of hatching.
• Rest, explore the island, go for a swim, read
What was your favorite memory from volunteering?
By far it was seeing two “boils” (baby turtles emerging from their nest cavern below ground at a quick speed) and starting their dash to the ocean in one night!
Close seconds were:
• Finding alive stragglers buried under shells in the nest clean-out documentation and giving them a lift to the waterline.
• Seeing lemon sharks swimming a foot offshore hunting fish.
What's the biggest thing that you learned?
I was shocked to learn that only 1 out of 1,000 hatchlings will ever make it to breeding age maturity of 35yrs old! Without the nest protection efforts of CRP or many other organizations, few would even make it the point of hatching or to the ocean.
What would you say to others interested in participating in this volunteer experience?
10/10 would recommend spending a week on a rustic island with strangers to save baby sea turtles! Highly recommend, you will get incredible hands-on experiences with turtles and actively make a difference in their continued recovery and survival. (This is not a beach vacation with some turtles on the side. There is daily physical work, the living is primitive, biting bugs/things are aplenty, and the weather can be wild.)
Inspired to pack your Newport sandals (and natural bug repellent) and head to the southeast coast to volunteer with turtles? Here's a 50-second recap of Stacey's experience: