See Turtles & VolunTourism
Sea turtles receive more than their fair share of media coverage in the VolunTourism space. But, what is it about these creatures? They have an uncanny ability to win the hearts of droves of people, causing said bipeds to travel to places like Costa Rica, Mexico, and elsewhere to assist their four-flippered friends. For this issue, Brad Nahill, Director of seeTurtles.org and a former VolunTourist himself, joins us to address our 3Q's and provide insights into one of the most popular approaches to VolunTourism in the Western Hemisphere and beyond.
1) Why are there so many Sea Turtle Conservation projects available?
"Sea turtle projects got on the voluntourism bandwagon at a very early stage and now there are dozens of projects around the world to choose from. When looking for a conservation volunteer project when I graduated from college ten years ago, almost all of the projects I found were with sea turtles. There are a number of reasons why volunteers and turtles go together so well.
First, working with turtles in most places is relatively simple and researchers can train anyone how to do the work regardless of background in a couple of days. Most of the work involves measuring turtles, tagging them, and moving the eggs to a safe place if necessary.
Second, there are hundreds of nesting beaches (mostly in the tropics) around the world, most of which stretch for miles and have small conservation budgets. Having a group of volunteers allows these projects to cover a lot of beach, in many cases making their work possible.
Finally, having a volunteer program is a great way to involve the local community in conservation efforts. In many places, local families benefit from volunteer programs by offering home stays or by the business generated for restaurants, hotels, and local shops.
What are the parameters of a program that best serves the interests of turtles and communities collectively?
"There is no secret recipe for sea turtle conservation volunteer projects. Each project has its own specific circumstances that it needs to address, including local threats to turtles and habitat, politics, community relations, and funding availability. However, there are key elements that many successful projects share, including:
Scientific Research - - A strong program run by qualified biologists is a must for any long-term conservation project. Ideally, the project will publish or share its data with the larger community so that the global situation for turtles is better understood.
Community Involvement - - Turtle researchers have come to realize that actively engaging local communities is a very important factor in success. Without local support, efforts to protect turtles and their eggs is much more difficult. True community involvement includes local residents on staff and in leadership positions, working proactively with local businesses to ensure they benefit from visitors, and coordinating project strategy and policy with local leaders on a regular basis.
Education - - Long-term survival of sea turtles depends on educating local children from a young age. Effective programs bring students to the beach to witness turtle nesting and hatchling releases and show them why protecting turtles is important.
Best Practices - - Over the past five decades of turtle conservation, researchers have identified a number of recommended practices, such as organizing regular beach cleanups, ensuring that data collection has as little impact as possible on the turtles, releasing hatchlings as soon as possible, and leaving nests in-situ--where the female turtle puts them--wherever feasible.
3) As a potential voluntourist, or as an entity seeking a relationship with a turtle conservation project on behalf of potential voluntourists, what personal qualities or characteristics would be best suited for these types of experiences?
"Volunteering with a sea turtle project is not for everybody. Voluntourists who are in good shape, flexible and open-minded, enthusiastic, with a strong work ethic, and the ability withstand sometimes unpleasant conditions will thrive at these projects. What is not needed at these projects are things like foreign-language skills, a degree in biology, and lots of money to spend (though all are certainly nice to have!). The challenges of volunteering on a sea turtle projects are what make the experience interesting, which is one of the main reasons to participate.
On long nesting beaches, volunteers will walk as many as 10 miles in an evening, which can challenge even relatively fit people. Walking on soft sand for long distances can take a toll on legs and those who can’t keep up with researchers can slow down patrols. Volunteers should be in good physical condition or check with the project first to see how much walking and physical activity is involved. Voluntourists who are expecting a laid back vacation will be surprised at how much work is involved. Conservation groups expect volunteers to show up for every shift they are assigned. Generally the work is done at night, often late into the night, so expect to sleep in and have your days mostly free.
Open minds, flexible attitudes, and enthusiasm are crucial for this kind of work. Conditions at the projects can change quickly, which can result in moving around volunteer shifts. As most projects are in foreign countries, people need to be respectful and open-minded about different cultures, foods, and customs. Living conditions at most projects are very basic, with volunteers having a bed, table, fan, and mosquito net if needed, and little else. Travel light and make sure your expectations are accurate to avoid disappointment.
Some of the conditions that volunteers at turtle projects need to weather (pun intended) are rain, insects, and heat so both preparedness and ability to cope are both critical. Beach patrols happen regardless of the rain, so be prepared with the right gear. Some places have sand fleas which can leave mosquito-like bites on unprotected legs, so long pants are usually a good idea.
Anyone considering working at a sea turtle conservation project should make sure they have as much information as possible on local conditions and think seriously if this type of work is right for them. For those who can embrace the challenges, this experience can be among the most meaningful and inspiring things they do in their lives!
About Brad Nahill - - Brad Nahill is the Director of SEE Turtles, a conservation tourism project that connects volunteers with turtle conservation projects at no charge.
He has worked in sea turtle conservation and ecotourism for 10 years, with organizations including Ocean Conservancy, Rare, and Asociacion ANAI (Costa Rica). He has also worked with or consulted for several ecotourism companies, including EcoTeach and Costa Rican Adventures. Brad has been a sea turtle volunteer, managed volunteers at different projects, and recruited more than 200 people to more than a dozen turtle projects in Latin America.
A co-founder of SEE Turtles, he leads project implementation, including working with tour operators and conservation partners, giving educational presentations, fundraising, and developing promotional materials. In addition, he has co-authored several abstracts on turtle conservation in Costa Rica and turtle watching best practices. Brad has a BS in Environmental Economics from Pennsylvania State University and is currently working towards a Certificate in Sustainable Tourism Management from George Washington University.