Saturday, May 10, 2008

SEATRU Volunteer Work

Volunteering for SEATRU conservation work is pretty simple & straightforward... It requires effort but I guess I find it meaningful and most importantly, I like sweating it out and not really having to use my brains that much... That I can get loads of back in the office. It's really different from the normal routine of going to the office and sitting in front of the computer and way better than attending meetings. And it's really effective in helping you lose weight as well...

In the mornings, volunteers' tasks start with the documenting of the last night's nests. Documenting the nests consist of writing relevant information on a nest marker. This includes information such as the identity of the turtle, the nest number and also the date the nest was deposited. The nest marker is a 1" x 1" stick painted red on one side (indicating where the clutch of eggs is located) which is normally placed during the nesting, but more on this later. At the same time, measurements are taken to document the distance of the nest from the surf and the foliage.

Once that's done, it's pretty much free and easy. Volunteers are free to swim & snorkel (up to 3 pm). In addition, depending on the weather, the staff will bring the volunteers to Turtle Rock a short trek up the hill on one side of the beach providing some of the breathtaking views of the beach as well as the North Eastern coast of the island. There's also snorkeling at Marine Park if weather permits and also a hike up the river on the other side of the beach.

A roster will be drawn up whereby volunteers will patrol the beach throughout the day to ensure the nests along the beach are safe. This normally involves checking each nest to ensure there are no signs of attack by fire ants, monitor lizards and ghost crabs. Other tasks include beach clean-up and any other odd jobs such as cooking, cleaning the camp, preparing the marker sticks and so on.

Late in the evening, excavation begins. Excavation involves the examination of nests which reach a certain age. This is done to document the progress of the clutch of eggs. In addition, by excavating nests, researchers are able to track the progress of hatchlings. From this process, we would also know if the hatchlings will be emerging that night. Once the nests reach a certain age, typically after the incubation period, the contents would be extracted for examination. From this, we would know how many of the clutch successfully hatched.

Once excavation is complete, it's time to wash up and prepare dinner.

After dinner, everyone lazes around waiting for the tide to rise. Once the tide rises, the fun begins. This is when turtles start crawling up the beach to lay their eggs. The volunteers together with the staffs and research assistant(s) will sit on the beach and chat (softly) under the moonlight while monitoring the beach for any incoming turtles.

Any sightings will be documented on a sheet of paper including time of emergence from sea, the time the turtle starts crawling up the beach, the species and also the time it starts nesting. The nesting can also be sub-divided into several stages, body pitting (where the turtle digs a hole to submerge itself), egg chamber (where it starts digging the cavity to deposit its eggs, sand bathing (where it camouflages the nest) and last but not least, return to the sea. During the process, volunteers will be treated to one of the greatest wonders of mother nature... Watching a turtle lay its clutch of eggs. The processes mentioned here are typical of a green turtle. Other species such as the Olive Ridley, Hawksbill or Leatherbacks will differ.

While the turtle is laying it's clutch, the team would also be required to document the identity of the turtle and if it has yet to be tagged, to tag the turtle. Any parasites such as barnacles will be removed from the carapace.

Now, things may not be as quick as it seems... What was documented in one paragraph sometimes takes hours to complete. For example, body-pitting can take up to 30 mins and if you are unlucky, the turtle may decide the feng shui is not good enough and decides to relocate. There were times I have tracked the same turtle zig zagging up and down the beach before finally depositing its eggs... after 3 hours.

This process takes place until daybreak however, after midnight, the volunteers will again be divided into shifts so they don't look like zombies at the end of the week long attachment.

As mentioned earlier, in the morning, nests will be properly documented. This is done using the data gathered on the forms the last night.

And voila... That's pretty much all you need to do the whole week. For those of you who like it, it will be a very enriching experience and it's not necessarily routine as you may have different experiences each day. Each night, the volunteers will look forward to a productive night surpassing the previous night. The most I have had on a single night is 5 nestings... Boy it was a busy night.

Having volunteered 4 times, I have seen turtles being tagged, I have seen them laying eggs, removed barnacles... the whole works... And it's not just that. The excitement of spotting a turtle crawling up the beach is out of this world. And in 2005, we woke up at 3 am to find that the boat was sinking.
Some volunteers enjoy stargazing and watching shooting stars. Last year, some of us even went on a night safari tracking mousedeers, river prawns and crabs.

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