What is it like to be a volunteer?

This was my first time in a conservation project and I would definitely recommend this experience to everyone that is looking for eco voluntering. What is it like to be a volunteer for Naucrates? Let me tell you.

Basically, we have 3 main activities which are beach monitoring, measurements of weather and tide conditions and observation. I will describe only the first and the last activity because they were my favourites.

So, every early morning we walked the three beaches of the island (splitting in two teams) to check if any sea turtle came during the night to lay eggs, in this way we can protect the nest from predators and human activity. I wasn’t lucky enought to see a nest during my stay on the island (possibly due to El Niño of last year) but I nevertheless really enjoyed walking on the beach when all is still dark because temperature is cool, everything is still quiet and so peaceful and you can watch beautiful sunrise everyday!

If you have never seen a sea turtle, the best way to see one is to go for observation shift on the hornbill hill. From there, you have a great view on a feeding area where normally only juvenile turtles come everyday. We collect data regarding their behaviour and learn to recognize the different sea turtle species. As usually same turtles are coming everyday and as they have some distinctive signs on their carapace like barnacles, we started to give them names to help us in our work. So maybe next time you will come, you might have the chance to see Barbara, Barnee or Noe!

Daily activities can sometimes be interrupted by unexpected events, it happened few times when I was there. One day we were monitoring a beach early morning when we received a call from a villager that a juvenile stranded turtle has been found on the mud next to the pier. It needed to be rescued, so we asked local people to bring us the turtle to check if it had any injury.

Once done, we had to release it to the sea but it was impossible to do it directly from the beach where we were because it is a bay and we noticed a net quite close that can possibly be a danger for the turtle and we couldn’t do it from another beach either because on that day there were too many big waves for a juvenile turtle so we had to figure out what to do. After some discussions, we decided to take kayaks and paddled out of the bay to safely release the turtle in open water.

That was so thrilling to see how fast a sea turtle can swim!

On another day, Et (a thai working for one of the resorts of the island) informed us that he saw some sea turtle tracks on Koh Ra beaches (Koh Ra is an island with 8 beaches in the north of Koh Phra Thong that we monitor as well, but only once a week because of logistics issues). When tracks are found we need to check as soon as possible if they lead to a nest. Because it was late afternoon and no boat available to take us there, we couldn’t go same day and had to wait for next morning.

We found 5 tracks on two different beaches but unfortunately no nest. For each track, we record the GPS position, the size and the position compared to the tide level and vegetation. The shape of the tracks allowed us to identify that it was a green turtle of 1m length that came 5 times on the beach. Could be Barbara which is an adult that was in the feeding area few days ago. However, we do not know why she didn’t lay eggs. Did she have any troubles? Had she been bothered?

We came back on Koh Ra few days later but no signs of her and neither on the observation area. We can only wait and see if she comes back another time on the beach. This is the tricky and interesting part of the project: we are working with wild creatures and have no power on them!

Being an eco-volunteer is not only about sea turtles it is also about participating in the life of the island by doing environmental education with children, building a relationship with local people or arranging the conservation community center. I particularly liked working with children because they are always willing to learn and I think that the younger you teach them something the easier they will remember it.

Working with kids is a good way to communicate about Naucrates project as they will be the first ones to spread to their friends or parents what they learned. So we decided to organize with the teacher and students of the school of Tapayoi (the only school on the island) a beach cleaning and a drawing session to raise awareness among wastes on the beach and consequences for marine life. The aim was to go with them on the beach with some trash bags to collect garbage and show them how much plastic/glass/styrofoam are thrown back by the sea everyday.

After this, Andrea (Naucrates field leader) explained -with the help of the teacher who was translating in thai- the negative impacts of plastic and styrofoam for sea turtles, fishes and marine life in general. We then asked the students to make two teams so that one team could draw wrongdoings such as throwing water bottles in the sea and the other team could draw good actions like spliting garbage. To finish the activity, kids drew all together a big green turtle on a black board and wrote “save turtles” next to it. It was so nice to see how interested in turtles the kids were, they really seemed to understand the stakes of the project and why we have to protect them. Andrea will definitely try to organize other activities with them during the season.

I could write a lot more about all the activities that we are doing in Koh Phra Thong such as working on the conservation community center, cooking lessons or something else, but I am sure that other volunteers would like to tell their experience as well.

What I can say is that by seeing the drastic fall down of number of nests during the last thirty years, I realized how much human activity is part of this decrease and how important is our work here to try to invert this situation. I woke up everyday during my five weeks on the island, with same motivation to walk, to find a track, a nest, to observe sea turtles behaviour, because I do strongly believe in the aim of the project.

It wasn’t easy to build a strong relationship with local people as an international NGO but Naucrates made it over the years and I felt that locals are happy to see us. We need to keep raising awareness and make them understand that they are the key of success of this project and that even small actions can help preserving the marine life/environment. I reckon that everybody can work at its own scale and from now on I will definitely pay more attention to my actions.

Finally, I found out that volunteering is a good way to spend my holidays; I can serve a good cause and discover a country from a different perspective at the same time. So my last words will be: join Naucrates and live a great adventure!

Amandine

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