Responsible sea turtle conservation holidays

Seven species of sea turtles glide through the world’s oceans, nesting on the shores of every continent except Antarctica – and all but one is threatened, with classifications ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered. Conservation projects are therefore essential in monitoring and protecting sea turtles and their eggs – and with a huge need for manpower and funds, paying volunteers play a key role in the sustainability of these projects and the ongoing survival of the species.

It’s not hard to imagine the difference that sea turtle volunteers can make when you look at the odds. Estimates for the number of hatchlings that survive into adulthood range from one in 100 to one in 1,000; the tiny babies risk being eaten by birds, raccoons or crabs as they scuttle across the sand, and are at the mercy of marine predators once they reach the ocean.

It’s impossible to stand guard over these hatchlings until they are strong adults with protective shells, but we can patrol beaches to deter human and other predators, move eggs to safer places, take part in beach clean ups, collect data on nesting and hatching turtles and work with local communities to help them understand the importance of protecting these species.

And while it’s brilliant if you are dedicating your precious holiday time to helping save sea turtles, there are many ways you can make big differences to turtle conservation, wherever you may be. These apply whether you are on a turtle conservation trip, holidaying near a beach where turtles nest – or even staying at home. Read on to find out more about responsible tourism and turtle conservation.

Wildlife & environment

Why sea turtles are important

Apart from the moral case for saving sea turtles from extinction due to (largely) human activity if we can, these creatures play a number of important roles. For one thing, they control numbers of their prey species, such as sponges and jellyfish. Grazing sea grass beds and plundering sponges from reefs helps to keep these habitats healthy.

Turtle hatchlings in turn provide food for fish, birds and many other animals. It might not be a very nice thought to contemplate while you’re helping steward them into the sea, and they’re so flipping cute, but the fact that a proportion of them will eventually be gobbled up by larger creatures is actually a good thing in the grand scheme of things.

The interest that turtles hold for so many people also means that their presence on beaches can create a valuable income stream for coastal communities, and can provide an alternative income to poaching. Given that they’re worth more alive than dead, and that we know what the threats they face are and can combat many of them, there is hope for the future.

What you can do
If you see any hatchlings, you can scare off any predators, but leave the hatchlings alone. They should only be picked up if they are clearly crawling away from the sea (this often happens when there are lots of lights to confuse them). If this happens, turn them around and make sure they make it out to sea. But let them crawl as far as possible, to ensure they get their bearings and remember the beach they hatched on. If they are female, they will hopefully return here in years to come to lay their own eggs.

Turtle watching tours can be a great way for projects to raise funds to pay for local rangers and awareness campaigns, so you don’t always need to be a volunteer to help local turtles. However, do ensure you choose a reputable tour operator and guide. Responsible companies will have small group sizes and will inform you about the rules and regulations such as no flash photography, wearing dark clothes, and keeping your distance from nesting turtles. Irresponsible companies will simply try and get as many tourists as possible onto their trips.

Read more about why we should conserve sea turtles.

Problematic turtle projects

Not all turtle conservation projects out there are genuine. Some are only too willing to charge tourists a hefty fee simply to go and see turtles on the beach and call this a ‘conservation tour’. Sometimes, dozens of tourists are crowded around a single nesting female, camera phones flashing, torches shone, and with no minimum distance being observed. In the worst cases, the crowds and lights can scare the female away – and she’ll drop her eggs in the sea, where they will never hatch.

Even well-meaning organisations can cause more harm than good if they don’t know what they are doing. Eggs are fragile, the temperature they are stored at affects the gender of the hatchlings (warmer eggs produce females), the sand they are buried in must be fresh, and so on. Anyone leading these projects without a thorough knowledge of turtle biology could be damaging turtle populations.

Anyone thinking about volunteering at a hatchery should familiarise themselves with what to avoid – including handling eggs and hatchlings without gloves, and the use of tanks for hatchlings, which are often there to benefit the tourists, not the turtles. You can read more about our stance on hatcheries here.

What you can do
Fortunately for willing volunteers, there are fairly easy ways to tell if the organisation is legitimate. All the trips on our site have already been screened to ensure they are carrying out genuine turtle conservation work. But the best thing to do is simply ask questions. Any organisation that is evasive, gives unsatisfactory answers or cannot put you in touch with former volunteers should be avoided.

And any genuine organisations will be only too happy that their future volunteers are taking the business of turtle conservation so seriously, and will be able to discuss project successes, the work involved and let you speak to those who have volunteered previously.

Here are some questions we recommend asking the organisation before you sign up to a sea turtle conservation holiday. They will help you ensure not only that the turtles are being protected – but that you are too, with backup should anything go wrong and a clear idea of your duties and living conditions.

    What exactly will I be doing on this project? It’s always helpful to know what types of activities will be involved – some patrols involve walking several kilometres over soft sand, for example – and at what time of day. If you are on night patrols, will you have time to rest in the morning? How will this work benefit turtles? The organisation should be able to outline the main threats to turtles in that area – such as habitat loss, fishing bycatch or poaching – and explain how the project work is addressing these threats. Can you show me evidence of the successes of this project? Ongoing monitoring and evaluation is an essential part of any conservation project. Has poaching been reduced? Has the number of nesting turtles increased? Has proposed construction work close to the beach been called off? Are local people involved in the project? It’s always a good sign if local people are working alongside volunteers. Volunteer fees can fund employment in the communities, with paid rangers and hatchery staff. And raising awareness in schools or workshops will mean the project is much more sustainable. Can I speak with former volunteers? They will let you know exactly what is involved, what to expect, and generally put your mind at rest about the trip. Unscrupulous organisations will obviously not be keen to let you speak to former participants. If the organisation states that a percentage of the fee is donated to the project (not just covering volunteer expenses), can this be broken down? How much is donated, and what is it spent on? What support is available if something goes wrong? Illness, injury and natural disasters are all possible – so be prepared. This does not replace travel insurance, which will pay medical bills and cover emergency evacuation, but the organisation should have communications systems in place and transport – particularly as many projects are located in very remote areas – to ensure you are safe.

The trouble with turtle farms

The Cayman Turtle Centre is thought to be the least sea turtle farm in the world. It claims to have done much to improve populations of green sea turtles through their captive breeding programme, but it also sells turtles for their meat, and turtles are used for photo ops. It’s a dubious, murky situation and we would suggest giving this place a wide berth.

World Animal Protection is one of the organisations that have campaigned for years on this issue. Watch their shocking video on the conditions the turtles are housed in on the Cayman Islands.
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The centre markets itself as conserving endangered species, But while it certainly does release many endangered green sea turtles back into the wild and makes a positive difference in some respects, it’s very hard to square that with making an income from selling turtles for food.

At the centre, which is one of the most-visited attractions in the Cayman Islands, tourists can touch turtles, and even snorkel with them. Such interactions put the turtles at risk of stress, injury and disease, so that any that are subsequently released into the ocean pose a threat to wild populations.

Turtle farms have long been condemned by sea turtle charities and other NGOs, as well as scientists from Oxford University who have called for them to be transformed into genuine sea turtle sanctuaries.

What you can do
Steer well clear of turtle farms.

Thankfully, turtle farms are almost extinct, but the Cayman Turtle Centre continues to thrive. If holidaying there, skip the centre and encourage others to do likewise – turtles are best observed in the wild, on a responsibly operated tour.

There is an argument that using farmed turtle meat in local Cayman restaurants reduces the threat of poaching, but an equally valid argument that, because the meat has obvious value, it actually encourages poaching instead. It’s a grey area but regardless – why eat turtle in the first place? There are many wonderful seafood dishes to try in the Cayman Islands that don’t involve cooking up an endangered species.

Plastic pollution in our oceans

Plastic waste is a huge issue. It can get wrapped around turtles’ heads, necks or fins – and they can die from ingesting it. Plastic bags are a particular threat as in the water they resemble jellyfish, the favourite food of leatherbacks.

What you can do
Reduce plastic use both at home and while on holiday. Carry reusable bags, try and avoid using plastic water bottles (refilling from one large bottle if tap water is not safe to drink), and take waste away with you if you know there are no adequate disposal facilities in the destination. Plastic recycling is still not possible in many countries.

Light pollution – a deadly distraction

Anne Smellie, from our partner Oyster Worldwide, explains why light pollution is a big problem for sea turtles: “They’ve found that mainly the baby turtles get confused as they use up all their energy heading towards the lights – which are, of course, in the opposite direction to the sea. Then at dawn they realise they’ve gone in entirely the wrong direction, they’ve used up all the energy that they had stored to swim out to sea, to reach feeding grounds so that they can shelter, hide from bigger predators; they just don’t make it. So it’s a really simple thing that avoids such a huge catastrophe, if you’re looking at the bigger picture.”

What you can do
If you are staying in a beachfront hotel close to where turtles nest, find out what they are doing to protect the sea turtles. Do they turn exterior lights off at night, or use red lights only – and issue guests with red torches? Do they ensure all beach furniture is cleared from the sand? Are nests marked, and are guests briefed on how to avoid damaging nests, or disturbing the mothers? Are they involved in any local conservation efforts – paying rangers, educating local communities and so on? These are all small but simple things which can make a big difference to the survival rates of turtles in that area. If you are on a beach at night where turtles nest, use a red light or switch off your torch altogether, wear dark clothing, and keep several metres away from any mothers you see coming ashore. Never use flash photography.

Fishing & hunting

Dolphin-friendly tuna has been around now for decades, but no equivalent exists yet for sea turtles or other marine animals which are caught as part of the bycatch or injured by nets and boats.

However, wherever you are in the world, it is worth looking into different brands to find out which have responsible fishing policies. Pole and line caught fish is considered the most ethical, but without a reliable kitemark, information from food brands on how their fish was caught, or even an agreement amongst campaigners of what an ethical yet practical fishing method would look like, we appreciate that ensuring your fish choices don’t harm turtles is virtually impossible.

Meanwhile, so called ‘tortoiseshell’ is in fact made from the shells of the endangered hawksbill turtle. Jewellery and trinkets made of this turtle shell are often available in souvenir stalls, particularly across Latin America and the Caribbean. It is illegal to trade in and contributes to the hunting of these turtles.

What you can do
Get to know your local fishmonger, research the brands sold at your local supermarket and try and educate yourself as best as possible. And for American tuna fans – this guide to choosing sustainable tuna should help.

Tortoiseshell is beautiful – but it’s even more beautiful when it remains on the back of a hawksbill turtle happily swimming through the seas. Showing that there’s no market for tortoiseshell is easy: simply avoid buying tortoiseshell jewellery or handicrafts.

People & culture

Poaching – not so black & white

“I hate the word poacher because of the way we’re brought up with the word in England,” says Anne Smellie, from our turtle conservation expert Oyster Worldwide. “If I think of a poacher, I always think of a bandit with some sort of mask over his eyes, sneaking around with a massive bag and a club. But they’re just local blokes or kids who want to take a few eggs so that they can sell them on, so that they can afford to clothe their family. The conservation projects actually work well with the poachers, because they understand the importance of turtle eggs now; every now and again they’ll take a few but not as many as they used to.

“The number of poached nests tend to plummet when the conservation projects are in the area because of the awareness that’s created and because of the money that volunteers bring in. Local people really benefit from it financially, to the extent that it outweighs any money that they get from selling eggs; it just helps on so many levels. You can’t even list how many – it’s helping the turtles but it’s also helping the local communities that used to take the turtle eggs.”

What you can do
Be aware of how tourism and turtle conservation can support local communities, and vice versa, and keep an open mind when learning about cultural differences.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Isabella Jusková] [Plastic beach: Fabio Achilli]