I always wanted to work with wildlife. Always. Give me a rock pool to poke around in or a forest to wander through and I’m happy. Cracking into the wildlife career field is difficult. When you have your heart set on working with a certain type of wildlife not even found in your country… it’s even more difficult. For me, it’s sea turtles. I think it’s their struggle that attracted me to working with them; from the way they have to drag their heavy bodies on to the beach to lay, to the minuscule chances of hatchling survival. I chose to study zoology so that I could make a difference and saving turtles was one area where I could definitely do just that.
Several months ago I got the opportunity of a lifetime to travel to the Caribbean to work with the Barbados Sea Turtle Project (BSTP). From the minute I arrived it was hands on. I had been in the country 24 hours and had already cared for hatchlings in the ICU, helped to transport an injured adult to the vet and tagged a mature female. I was surrounded by other wildlife the whole time too. Just from my balcony on the first day I saw hummingbirds, monkeys, lizards and bats. It was paradise!
Three of the seven types of sea turtles can be found in Barbados. The main species I worked with was the hawksbill sea turtle, although I was lucky enough to handle leatherback hatchlings and to have a green juvenile swim by me in the sea. Hawksbill sea turtles feed on sponges. In this way they help to maintain the coral reefs. Around 2,000 nests are documented on the island of Barbados each season. While they do nest year round, the peak nesting season is between May and October. Hawksbill sea turtles are critically endangered. Unfortunately they are hunted for their shell and for food. They also suffer from egg harvesting, fisheries by-catch and loss of habitat, amongst other problems. In Barbados there is a complete moratorium on harvesting sea turtles and their eggs. The BSTP conducts research on the sea turtles of Barbados. It also carries out conservation and rescue of trapped and disoriented sea turtles and conducts public outreach programs.
This was definitely not a holiday. From the moment I arrived I was covered in a constant layer of sweat and sand. I worked 6 days a week. Active patrol took place from half 7 to half 4, but I was on call from 6 until 6. I was lucky to be rotated between days and nights, giving me the opportunity to experience different types of work. The BSTP has a 24 hour turtle hotline to which people can report turtle sightings. The team would then respond to these calls that could vary from disoriented hatchlings to a female laying eggs to nests being washed out. These calls were made by everyone- local people, tourists, hotel staff, security, etc. This was one of the strengths of the Project in my opinion. Too many conservation projects enlist the best scientists, best technology, but forget or disregard the importance of public involvement and education. I was delighted to see how often people called in to report sea turtle activity. Even just walking the beaches in uniform would result in both tourists and locals enthusiastically reporting on any tracks they had seen themselves that morning. I absolutely loved to see the public involved and having a sense of responsibility for the wildlife around them.
Day time rarely involved adult nesting females, although I did encounter two day nesters during my time there. While it is not ideal for the females to nest during the day, it does provide the opportunity to photograph these beautiful creatures. Rather than monitoring nesting females, day patrol focused on picking up turtle activities missed by the team the previous night. This meant being able to detect turtle tracks in the sand and locate the nests. Once a nest was located a nest marker was added and GPS coordinates were taken. A map was drawn so that the nest could be located and excavated after hatching. Finally the tracks and nest were covered up. If the nest was in an area requiring relocation we would move the eggs to the closest suitable area. Once hatchling season was in full swing day patrol involved many calls to respond to hatchlings emerging during the day. These hatchlings required collecting and were kept until night time to be released.
Night patrol involved far more nesting females. I loved every minute of working with the Project, but seeing these amazing animals laying their eggs was beyond incredible. I remember watching the classic shots of TV presenters lying down with red lights as nesting females flicked sand back into their excited faces. I wanted to be there! And I finally was! Every time I watched a female come out of the waves, pull her tired body along the beach to find the right spot and determinedly dig into the sand I was mesmerised. It never got old. My favourite part was after they had made the trek back down the beach, when that first wave crashed over their shell, and they moved gracefully back out to sea. Encounters with nesting females involved measuring the carapace, reading the tags on their flippers, or if these were absent attaching new tags, placing a marker in the nest, mapping the nest and covering all tracks. Night patrolling also involved activities such as releasing hatchlings collected during the day, responding to calls, patrolling the beaches, etc.
Was it tough? Absolutely. Not every turtle encounter was a success. Hatchlings follow bright lights and so these poor babies were often attracted out on to roads and were road kill before anyone called the hotline to report the disoriented animals. Arriving to this scene was heart breaking. However making a difference to the sea turtles we rescued and collecting data that could help with the conservation of this important species made it all worthwhile. I lived with 5 other international volunteers and worked with these and local volunteers. Being part of this passionate, tight knit team that was working around the clock to help sea turtles in Barbados was so rewarding. I remember driving to respond to a call and thinking how lucky I was to be on this beautiful island working with wonderful people to contribute towards conservation efforts of an amazing animal. Was it an experience of a lifetime? A dream come true? Absolutely.