Turtle conservation work
At turtle headquarters, it’s quite appropriate that things move slowly. Maybe it’s because of an affinity with the animal, maybe it’s the way of the beach culture, or, most likely, it’s just because it’s South America. Life for my week volunteering with a turtle conservation group on the Uruguayan coast had its fair share of hard work, but things were certainly never stressed.
Turtle headquarters (as I’ve named it) is a small wooden building metres from the beach in the small town of La Coronilla (population 1000 with dogs included, 500 without). From the outside the building looks like a boarded-up shack until you open the walls to reveal open air windows into the communal spaces that were my home for the week. A small kitchen shared a space with the dining area; there were two couches in another area; and there were four tiny rooms with four bunk beds in each. The toilet and shower was outside.
Our group consisted of four Argentines, a Pole, and Australian (me) and our Brazilian coordinator. Oh, and our faithful hound and her seven puppies. The fifteen of us were the front line of defence for the turtle population of Uruguay, which was just beginning to wake up from hibernation on the cold ocean floors.
Volunteering with sea turtles
The period I was volunteering with the group (called Karumbe) was essentially pre-season. The main turtle conservation work kicks off in January when there are more animals in the area and more visitors interested in learning more about them. Our main task was to capture turtles for tagging and data collection – and if you didn’t catch the previous article you can find out how that went here.
The work involved more than that, though. Dead turtles that were found on the beach were given an autopsy to try to determine their cause of death (the results were normally inconclusive but I’m still convinced one was poisoned by a jilted lover!). Injured turtles were brought back to base and given medical assistance. One animal was so dehydrated from a day in the hot sun that we injected it with some kind of hydrating liquid thing (I should have paid more attention during that bit) and one with a missing fin was given our sympathy… because we’re not stem cell scientists, we can’t just grow another fin for it, geez!
Turtle headquarters was a scientific base, but it was also our home for this period. Together as a group, we also had to manage affairs of the house. We maintained the equipment, we cleaned, and we cooked the meals – a simple breakfast of bread and coffee; a lunch of pasta that we prepared before setting off for the day; and a carb-intensive dinner with a small portion of meat in the evenings. We were a family during this time – house-proud, work-proud and pitching in together to keep the base running smoothly. To me, this was meaningful travel.
With conservation work, awareness is quite often as important as action and we learnt a lot during our time. What people need to realise about the turtles is they’re a crucial part of the ecosystem. Only one per cent of their babies may survive, but it’s because they’re being eaten by other animals for food. And, as the circle of life continues, those animals provide food to larger ones. To protect the turtles in the ocean is to protect all the species which find life from them.
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