An experience of a lifetime

Anna Marie Lawn, third year BSc(Hons) Ecology student tells us about her time volunteering over the summer.

From July-September 2017, I volunteered with the organisation of the Society for the Protection of Turtles in Northern Cyprus, working with the native green and loggerhead sea turtle species.

There, I worked and lived for 6 weeks with 25 students, sharing mattresses laid out on the floor of a room and outside the building on some inhabitants setting quiet alarms as not to wake up others on different shifts, and all equally in our permanent state of being covered head to toe in sand from the previous day. In the day, we made lunch out of whatever was in the communal fridge (mostly pita bread and halloumi) with two students who had been blessed with a day off, cooking each night using whatever vegetables we could find for a low enough price at a nearby market.

Our work day rotated between night and day shifts, consisting of 10-15 hour days. Night workers patrolled protected beaches from 8:30pm-7am, asking people on the beach after hours to leave, and finding adult female sea turtles who we would observe laying eggs and marking out the locations with GPS co-ordinates. Adults would be flipper tagged, have their carapace measured length and width and have their behaviour recorded; all in the dark with only our faint red head torches shining.

Day work consisted of opening and closing ring cages (used to protect the turtles from crabs, foxes and dogs that people would illegally bring to the protected beach) these would be opened according to the time of day and heat of the sand, allowing any hatchlings to leave their nest during the day when the sand is not too hot, and closing the cages in the evenings so the night workers could collect hatchlings for weighing, measuring and biopsying. They would be released the following night- when they are most likely to escape the watchful eyes of predators.

The bulk of day work involved excavating nests that had hatched, or record unsuccessful nests where no eggs hatched.

This work was extremely labour-intensive. One person would locate, and dig an ever-collapsing area of sand that the night workers had marked out 2 months before, after observing the females lay and marking the location of her egg chamber. Digging had to be done gently enough to avoid harming any hatchlings that could be over 1m deep in the cool softer sand. Once, I had over half of my body length head down into a hole in the sand with the Mediterranean sun pounding on my back, I would carefully remove fragments and unhatched eggs and pass them up to my colleagues, along with any survivors that had struggled to get out, or stuck under plastic caught in the nest. Fragments and eggs would be ordered under a range of criteria, along with information about the nest that would be used for the numerous research projects taking place.

Working closely with fellow students, (mainly ecologists and zoologists) watching endangered animals from hatchlings to adulthood emerge, some for the first time, is something that many of us had spent our lives waiting to see. It gives you a special bond to the people you work with, to the country and to the beaches which I worked on every day for all but 1 day off I had in 6 weeks. The extremely hard work we did across the 3 bases in Northern Cyprus (one dealt with over 12,000 hatchlings this season!) is worth the lifelong friends, the experiences and the satisfaction you gain when you release a hatchling that you pulled from the plastics littered across the beaches. This was the experience of a lifetime, and I cannot wait to go back.

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