Chances are if you are coming to Sri Lanka with Plan My Gap Year (PMGY) that you at least considered the sea turtles project. Not only is it the most popular project in Sri Lanka, it is also one of the most popular projects that PMGY runs anywhere in the world. Wanting to include an animal care volunteering project as part of our gap year, we decided to come and see what all the fuss was about.
How did it all begin?
The sea turtle hatchery where you’ll be working was started by the current owner’s father back in 2000 and, following his death, was continued by his daughter. Everything changed on the 26th December 2004 for this family, as it did for many others in countries affected by the Boxing Day Tsunami. The current owner, Nimal, lost his entire family except for his brother. They were spared as they were working in Colombo at the time. As you can imagine, the project was terminated. There was nothing left and no-one to run it. However, on the 1st of January 2006, Nimal knew it was time to re-start the project that was so dear to his family. He was fortunate to receive support from a number of foreigners and still to this day he welcomes the help of foreigners as volunteers and donators for the hatchery. The fear of the ocean will always remain with him, especially as he also lives on-site (right on the beach) in order to protect the turtles from any harm. However, his dedication to the project keeps him here day after day.
Why is turtle conservation needed in Sri Lanka?
Unfortunately there are still a large number of the older generation in Sri Lanka who believe that eating the turtle’s egg or a turtle soup will allow them to live longer. This may seem an alien view to a westerner however it can be very difficult to shake these firmly held beliefs. People will therefore pay for eggs collected off the beach. One of the roles of this project is to provide an alternative sales route for the turtle eggs. By paying a slightly higher rate as well as a 24/7 collection service with no questions asked, many locals are opting to send the eggs to this hatchery instead of trying to sell them illegally.
Added to this are commercial fishing accidents. Fishing is a common livelihood for many local Sri Lankans who live along the coast. Fishing nets are not cheap and, if damaged, can cause a lot of financial trouble for the family reliant on the money made from the sale of fish. Therefore, if sea turtles become trapped in the nets it is often the turtle’s fin which is removed as opposed to risk damaging the net. The turtle will then be thrown back into the ocean and left to fend for itself. However, in such cases the turtle can often get oxygen trapped under the shell causing it to be buoyant in the water. Adding an inability to manoeuvre itself due to loss of fins and the turtle will most likely die if not rescued as it cannot duck down to feed, cannot avoid predators such as sharks and, being on the surface of the water, risks being hit by a boat. Only five months ago, Nimal and his team spotted a large turtle and fought against the strong waves and undercurrent to wrestle it on to the beach. At over 60 kg this was no easy feat but it means that 55 yr old Tom can now be taken care of alongside two other disabled turtles.
Even if the turtles are not eaten before they have chance to hatch and are not damaged in fishing/boating accidents then there is still a market for turtle shells although this is hopefully becoming less popular as more and more people worldwide are educated about the need for conservation.
What is the role of the volunteer?
The role of the volunteer is two-fold: to support the work done at the turtle hatchery by Nimal and his team; and to help keep the beach clean where the turtles are released into the ocean. Generally four days a week are spent at the turtle hatchery with one day cleaning the beach. The project takes place in the morning leaving the afternoons free for you to see the local area, hit the beach, chill at home or explore further afield.
Working at the turtle hatchery
The first job of the day is feeding and this usually involves the disabled turtles. They are moved (this is quite a job in itself as they are pretty heavy) from their tanks to the feeding tanks where you will provide them with chunks of tuna. As they are unable to duck down into the water you will need to be able to get the fish into their mouths or help them by pushing them down gently so that they can feed. When feeding the other turtles you just need to throw the food in as it is easy for them to swim and locate it.
Next up is tank cleaning. Depending on the number of volunteers, you will clean one, two or even three of the tanks. This means moving the turtles out, either by grouping them together or using the feeding tanks, and draining all of the water. As the water is escaping, wire wool is used to scrub away the dirt on the sides which is mainly caused by the build-up of algae. The sand also needs to be removed before the bottom can be scrubbed too. Once cleaned out and rinsed out it is time to put clean water back in. Whilst waiting, fresh sand is collected from the beach and Nimal will often bring over a bottle of cold fizzy pop – you’ll need it as you work up quite a sweat cleaning the tanks.
Once refilled, sand is scattered in and the turtles are replaced. Some of the turtles will then be medicated. This occurs for the disabled turtles as well as the smaller ones who have often been fighting. The medicine is iodine and is applied to shells, fins and injuries. Lastly its massage time! Removing the turtles from their tanks, applying sand to their shells and gently cleaning them is essential especially for the disabled turtles as it stops the build up of algae. The green turtles in particular are super sensitive to this and wriggle about as for them it must feel like they are being tickled!
And that’s it! Jobs are done for the day. Sometimes there are additional tasks such as painting the tanks, collecting fresh sand from the beach for the hatchery or burying newly collected eggs. As you learn more about each turtle there is also the opportunity of showing the tourists around which we highly recommend. Even if you aren’t ready to show a group around on your own, you’ll still get plenty of questions from those interested in what your doing both on the project and as part of your volunteer holiday/gap year.
If you are really lucky then you may even get a chance to release the baby turtles back into the ocean. This involves coming back to project in the evening just as the sun is setting. The turtles are released on a secluded section of beach which houses another hatchery not visited by tourists. They wait until it just goes dark in order to increase the chances of the turtles making it into the water and out to sea without being immediately killed by predators including stray dogs and birds. Sadly only about 1% of those released are thought to make it to maturity. All the more reason to release as many as you possibly can.
The beach clean
Slap on the sunscreen, put on your hat and grab a plastic bag – it’s time to clean the beach! The beach in question is a separate turtle hatchery that isn’t a place that tourists can visit. Its main purpose is to incubate the eggs and get as many turtles released back into the ocean as possible. There are currently plans to extend the hatchery to hold around 3500 eggs at any one time. Cleaning both sides of the beach is crucial. There is some research that suggests the beach in which the turtles first enter the ocean is the same beach they will return to in order to lay their own eggs. So even more of an incentive to get this secluded bit of beach clean.
Put simply, you just walk along and pick up the rubbish, putting it into your plastic bag. You’d be surprised what is left behind or washed up having been thrown overboard by fishermen. We found the usual plastic bags, food containers and bits of rope/netting, along with detergent bottles, pens and even toothbrushes! At first glance it may seem relatively clean but even the smallest fleck, when pulled from the sand can reveal a large item. Unfortunately some of the waste is dumped by locals but hopefully the more they see volunteers cleaning up their beaches, the more they will start to think twice about throwing the item on the floor.
The beach clean is quite a tiring activity but when you look back at the beach free from rubbish you can really see the difference. Plus walking barefoot through the sand and topping up your tan are better than that office job or classroom you may have left behind!
If you would like to volunteer as part of your next travel adventure or a longer gap year then why not contact PMGY? We’re travelling with them through three countries and will be completing four projects – check out our reasons for choosing PMGY for our volunteering experience.