Turtle conservation

Days spent on idyllic beaches coupled with close up encounters of some of the marine world’s most captivating creatures – it’s little wonder that turtle projects are a hit with conservationists of all ages. And with almost all species of sea turtle on the IUCN red list of endangered species, turtle conservation projects can offer opportunities for citizen science (where data is collected by non-scientists) at its most powerful.
The air hums with a hushed delight as you watch a host of tiny turtles pitter-patter down the beach towards the sea.
It can seem that there is such an overwhelming need to protect these prehistoric-looking old-timers of the sea that any conservation project is better than none, but there are some sanctuaries and hatcheries which cater more for the tourist dollar than the future of turtles. Turtle tanks should be avoided, and hatcheries need to be strictly controlled to ensure they have a positive impact on turtle populations.

Why do we need turtle conservation projects?

“The little dudes are just eggs, we leave 'em on a beach to hatch, and then, coo-coo-cachoo, they find their way back to the big ol' blue.” Crush the turtle in Finding Nemo isn’t wrong when he eloquently sums up the turtle breeding process; however in reality things aren’t quite so simple. Human encroachment onto beaches traditionally used by turtles can disrupt nests or discourage females from laying their eggs. Bright lights from beachfront hotels, towns and resorts can confuse hatchlings and send them in the opposite direction to the ocean – or prevent the females from laying eggs in the first place. At sea, natural predators combine with destructive industrial fishing and poaching – for their eggs, meat, skin and shells – and all the while habitats are threatened by global climate change.

The result? Nearly all of the world’s sea turtle species are classified as endangered. Turtle conservation projects focus their work on protecting nesting sites and ensuring a greater number of young hatchlings make it back into the ocean alive. Only 15% of turtle eggs left in wild nests will hatch and make it into the sea (fewer on unprotected beaches), while 80% of those moved to responsible, effective hatcheries will reach the ocean. And with only one in 1,000 hatchlings estimated to make it to adulthood, it’s vital that we ensure as many as possible reach the ocean to start their journey through life.

What does a turtle conservation holiday entail?

Night owls will love these projects. There are nightly beach patrols of up to four hours at a time to monitor nests, collect eggs for transport to safe hatcheries, release hatchlings and record measurements and observations of turtle behaviour. If that all sounds a bit exhausting, then don’t worry – daytimes come with plenty of time to nap in a hammock to the sound of the gently lapping ocean. Days are also spent in the turtle hatchery – keeping a close eye on the eggs, collecting data on incubation periods and hatching success rates that will be fed into worldwide studies. You’ll also have a chance to work with local communities, whether on education projects with local children, organising beach cleans or raising awareness in coastal communities of the turtles’ vulnerability.
While the settings are pure holiday, you will be expected to work hard. And this doesn’t end with the turtles. Accommodation for volunteers is generally communal and basic, and you’ll be expected to pull your weight when it comes to keeping things clean and tidy.

Can I bring the family?

On some projects, yes. While you are expected to work hard, the tasks assigned to you are relatively simple in nature and easy to pick up. Turtle conservation projects are one of the best ways for budding young conservationists to get hands-on and still make a genuine, useful contribution to the ongoing work. Costa Rica is generally the best bet for families – with projects welcoming children as young as five years old – and the country itself offers excellent tourist infrastructure and a relaxed, pura vida – clean living – vibe.

If you do bring your kids, you’ll need to be aware that a lot of the work – beach patrols in particular – is undertaken at night and that daytime temperatures can be hot and humid. At the same time projects that welcome children will take young volunteers’ ages into account and work closely with your family to create a schedule that doesn’t interrupt your children’s sleep patterns too much.

Your volunteer specialist will have close links with the local partners running their turtle conservation projects and will be able to advise as to which are most suitable for young children, and where they can offer your family the best support.

Where to volunteer on a turtle conservation project?

Costa Rica

Nowhere in the world has there been such a rapid decline in turtle numbers as in Costa Rica – where the warm shallow sandy beaches are a nesting haven for turtles traversing the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans. For example, since 1980 the population of leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific (once a stronghold for the species) has declined by over 90%. Conservation projects here are vital to redress this decline – and to work with local communities to help combat overfishing, plastic pollution and turtle poaching (turtle meat is considered a local delicacy, and the eggs a purported aphrodisiac). Projects here are set on beautiful beaches backed by palm trees and lush forests. You’ll be based mostly in the heart of small, traditional fishing communities where you’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice your Spanish, help local children with their English homework or play a game of football, as well enjoy sublime surfing and hiking during your time off.

Seychelles

The Seychelles offer a secluded island paradise – swathes of powder-white Indian Ocean sand, colourful coral reefs and impossibly turquoise seas accompany turtle conservation projects here. This collection of tiny atolls may be more synonymous with upscale all-inclusive resorts, but volunteering on a sea turtle conservation project will bring you into the heart of one of this region’s most successful – and award-winning – re-wilding initiatives. You’ll need to commit to at least 4 weeks, offering support to the permanent research staff on North Island, participating in (often hot and humid) daily beach patrols and collating data on sightings of endangered flora and fauna. While the work can be challenging – you’ll be expected to work under your own initiative (after detailed briefings of course) – you’ll still have plenty of time to relax and enjoy this island paradise, hire stand-up paddle boards, go kayaking, or swim and snorkel among the reefs.

Mexico

Discover the remote beaches of Baja California Sur, where sea turtles swim alongside ‘friendly’ gray whales, which use the protected bays here as breeding grounds, as well as a host of other marine wildlife including enormous whale sharks, and sea lions. Work here is focussed on protecting nesting green turtles, monitoring nest sites and collating data on turtle sightings in partnership with local researchers and local fishing communities. Alongside your work with turtles you’ll have opportunities to enjoy boat trips to spot gray whales and their young, snorkel with sea lions and picnic in deserted sand dunes.

Belize

The world’s second largest barrier reef shelters green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles – and turtle conservation projects here will see you based on a remote coral island in the heart of the reef. Water surveys see you snorkelling alongside these prehistoric-looking creatures, adding data on your sightings to ongoing research assessing sea turtle abundance and diversity in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. You’ll also be surveying manatees – gentle, bottom-dwelling sea cows, which graze on the fertile sea grass at the mouth of the Belize River – and bottlenose dolphins. Turtle projects in Belize bring you into close contact with ancient Central American cultures too, with the spectacular Mayan ruins of Tikal a short journey (by boat and bus) from your project site.

Our top Wildlife conservation Holiday

Family volunteering with turtles in Costa Rica

Family volunteering with turtles in Costa Rica

Family turtle conservation volunteering in Costa Rica

From £709 7 days ex flights
Tailor made:
Tailor made: Flexible departures July - December (nesting season)
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Best time to go on a turtle conservation project?

In Costa Rica turtle conservation projects run from early July to mid-December – the months when female turtles arrive on the Pacific coast beaches to lay their eggs. Adult turtles can generally be seen throughout this period, while the babies themselves start hatching from mid-August onwards. Towards the latter part of the season you’re likely to see more hatchlings than larger female adults. During August to October you can expect hot and humid weather (temperatures in the high 20°C to 30°C) with sunny mornings and wet afternoons, and while temperatures remain high in November and December, the weather will be drier – although rain can still occur. In Mexico, projects in Baja California take place in March, which coincides with the breeding season for thousands of gray whales, while in Belize you’ll need to travel in August to catch the turtle nesting season. Conservation projects in the Seychelles are open year-round, with trade winds bringing rain from November to March, and dry, but breezy conditions from May to September. Travel in October for little wind, calm seas, tip-top underwater visibility and the start of the turtle nesting season.

Saying no to turtle tanks

While responsible hatcheries are vital to the success of many sea turtle conservation projects, these seemingly invaluable resources are no strangers to conservation controversy. Recognising their potential draw for tourists – and subsequent tourist dollars – some hatcheries exist for little else, and by taking eggs out of the wild to be hatched in less-than-ideal conditions may actually be contributing to the decline in wild turtle numbers rather than boosting them.
Even well-meaning hatcheries can be inadvertently damaging to wild populations. Turtle eggs require very precise sand temperatures to hatch – any difference can alter the sex of the tiny turtles inside with devastating consequences for later life. Additionally, female hatchlings imprint where they are born so they can return to the same beach to lay their eggs as adults, meaning hatcheries should only be used when there are real issues around beach protection, and only as a last resort in conjunction with other conservation measures.
Here at Responsible Travel we won’t promote any turtle conservation project which uses tanks to house hatchlings as there is little evidence that tanks improve survival rates. Instead, rates of disease transmission are high, and there is a real concern that the imprinting process will be interrupted if the tiny turtles’ journey to the sea is delayed by days or weeks.
Read more about the issues with turtle hatcheries – and what you should look out for to ensure the project you choose is responsible – here.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Stefan Hunt] [Top box: Frontierofficial] [What it entails : Brian Gratwicke] [Mexico: Constanza S. Mora] [Turtle tanks: Frontierofficial]
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