Before I even knew of the sea turtle project in Barbados, I already knew I loved turtles (I still have a poster hanging in my childhood home of turtles). I always knew that I would end up in a career that involved biology in some way, I always loved science in school and I felt empathetic towards animals. It was not until I met a woman, by the name of Bogna Griffin, during the second year of my BSc in GMIT that I knew I’d be involved in turtle work shortly. When I got talking to her through the labs we shared, she was telling me about all these experiences involving the Barbados Sea Turtle Project. So, I did what any cheeky yet-to-be conservationist did and asked her where and how to apply. She did not hesitate to share the information with me and before I knew it, I was on Skype with Dr. Darren Browne having an interview for a research assistant position. I do not even think it was a week later when I received an email stating that I got the position. I immediately booked my flights to Barbados.
What is the Barbados Sea Turtle Project?
The Barbados Sea Turtle Project, or BSTP, based at the University of the West Indies (Cave Hill Campus) was set up over 25 years ago to monitor the second highest population of nesting hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) in the world. The organisation is part of WIDECAST (Wider Caribbean Sea turtle Conservation Network) which gathers information from other countries in the Caribbean. The BSTP monitors the island 24 hours a day and operates a hotline for anyone to call if they see a turtle on the beach or if a nest may potentially be at risk i.e. high tides. Although mainly focusing on hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), the group also records other turtle species occasionally such as leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas).
Planning for the trip
To be honest, I was a bit naïve when preparing for this trip. I just thought that all I had to do was to be accepted by the project and pay for my flights. Oh boy was I wrong. I had to get several immunisations, including typhoid and hepatitis and purchase a proper mosquito spray (which included DEET, and a word of advice, the stronger the DEET percentage does not usually mean the better resistance). However, getting the shots were not the real pain, but it was the fact I was still in college with exams approaching and my attitude of “Eh, I will do it next week”. I did not know that there was a worldwide shortage of these shots when I finally went to my GP. She was luckily able to get her hands on some for me DAYS before I left.
A day in the life of a BSTP volunteer
Although this was only a once off, my first day started with a 20km walk on the east side of the island looking for leatherback turtle nests. It would not have been too bad but not only am I a pasty Irish boy, not used to heat of that magnitude, but I was also severely jet-lagged. After a long 14-hour sleep, we went for a snorkel, as we did every day. That night was our first ‘real’ hands-on training. We were brought along with the local volunteers to several west coast beaches by our boss. Darren showed us how to excavate, spot, draw and measure nests, and what to look out for when out monitoring. The majority of the time, females were seen on the beaches either going to/from the nest, laying eggs, or scouting the area. Darren also demonstrated how to tag the turtles with specially designed metal tags. I got the “pleasure” to wrestle with one in the water and tag it all at once one night. The tags provide the project with vital movement, age and survival information. Recorded every time the turtle is seen indicates how often and when they return to nest and how they grow. After two weeks, we were split into groups from week to week and assigned to either Hilton Patrol, Hotline Patrol or West Coast Patrol. During day patrol, females are rarely seen so the majority of the work is to patrol the beaches and record any activity that was potentially missed the night before (due to that area not being patrolled) or the female coming after we were present. The day shift also tends to be harder due to the extreme heat during the day. Day shifts usually started at 6 am and finished at 3-4pm, night shift starts at 8 pm and usually finished around 4 am but can be later depending on turtle presence and calls to the hotline.
As a volunteer, you get one day off per week. As night patrols finished late (well, early morning), we usually woke up late afternoon, when the heat was at its highest. After breakfast we usually went to the beach, just 2 minutes from the house for a snorkel. While snorkelling here, you can see turtles, corals and many numerous species of fish including eel species i.e. sharptail eel (Myrichthys breviceps) and porcupinefish (Diodon hystrix). Apart from snorkelling, Barbados holds a lot of recreational activities to do. Scuba diving is a big industry here, allowing you to see marine life that tends to inhabit deeper waters. Lionfish (Pterois spp.) are invasive and divers are encouraged to hunt them in order to reduce their numbers which pose a threat to native species. So you can bring home some tasty dinner. Other things to do is to explore the island. You can take a bus to the town of Bridgetown and shop in one of Cave Shepherd’s various locations. Walk around the immediate area and take photos or even get a bus or drive to other areas such as visiting one of the many cave systems i.e. Harrison’s Cave or the Animal Flower Cave or taking a 20 minute walk south from the house and visiting the Mount Gay Rum Distillery, one of the best authentic rums worldwide. If you fancy more organised relaxation the Boatyard Beach Club offers beach chairs, a watercourse with slides and a bar/kitchen so access to food and drink. They also offer a ‘swim with turtles’ snorkelling trip but do not be fooled, it is just as easy to bring your snorkel gear and go out with a friend on any of the beautiful beaches in Barbados and do the same. I would encourage anyone with an interest/passion for marine conservation to do their own personal research into perhaps signing up for the Barbados Sea Turtle Project by firstly following the link http://www.barbadosseaturtles.org/