Volunteer Experience: Playa Las Tortugas

By Nancy Silva

As we continue our path toward globalization, delineations, boundaries and demarcations of nations, gender roles, cultures and societies get increasingly blurred. Such occurrence has, in some cases, been the cause of confusion; but at other times, it can manifest itself in a more positive light. It can offer the world’s population a chance to unite and create shared values: values that can be the foundation of a healthier global civilization. It may not be an easy task but it’s a task worth taking. This might seem impossible at the global level but after seeing it take place in an isolated location this summer it made it possible for me to believe in such a change.

In the beginning of the year I decided I would volunteer during the summer, just before starting a new phase in my life. I had always wanted to volunteer in something I was passionate about but was always “too busy”. As an avid reader of this blog, I finally obtained the much-needed nudge to make my daydreams a reality. After doing research online, contacting and exchanging emails with different organizations, I finally found an organization that suited my interest and timeline: Playa las Tortugas – a sea turtle camp in Mexico. The purpose of the camp is to collect and incubate sea turtle eggs. Once the Incubation period is over, newborn sea turtles are released into the ocean. It’s such a natural process that such task could seem unnecessary; unfortunately, sea turtles are part of the Mexican local cuisine and many turtles are never given the chance to even battle the sea and all its dangers. The organization’s main goal indeed is to collect the nests before poachers get to them.

Every night became a race.

Playa las Tortugas is situated in an isolated part of Mexico, having the closest village – and food supply – 30 minutes away. A veterinarian and a biologist, both employees of the Mexican government, are in charge of the camp. As I arrived at the destination, the nice looking houses contradicted the dirt road, cattle and coconut trees left behind. The guesthouses are owned by foreigners, and rented out to any interested tourist; yet, tourists and house owners also contribute to the camp either monetarily or by volunteering during the nights while on vacation. One house owner in particular has taken it upon himself to integrate into the organization by seeking volunteers from all over the world. He has hired a person to be in charge of all volunteers, as he has been currently looking for grants. Finding a grant would be helpful for the camp by letting it stand on its own and not depend solely on the Mexican government. At any time the Mexican government could cut back on their funding, especially with the recent wars on drug cartels throughout the whole country.

The camp is not only limited to foreign volunteers; people from nearby villages also contribute to the cause. The involvement of the nearby population signifies work and education opportunities; thus, giving them an alternate lifestyle than that of a poacher, who gains thirty-five cents for each egg. The aim is to have a second self-sufficient camp, running twenty-four hours per day, and solely operated by villagers.

Everyone unites for this common goal: from the Mexican government and citizens to foreign tourist and residents. It’s heart warming to witness everyone come together from different cultures, ages, languages, and ideologies in order to help an almost extinct animal. The actual volunteering experience was also rewarding. During the months of August and October (although turtles lay eggs year round), Mexico experiences the peak of nesting season, which means that hundreds of eggs can be collected in a single night. As a volunteer, you patrol the beach walking up and down a stretch of two kilometers, from 9PM to 2AM. Each time a turtle surfaced and started laying eggs, you could feel the lifted spirits of volunteers. Along the process, new friendships were made with people from around the world.

The volunteering was not easy. No luxuries were to be found at the camp. It was hot, horribly humid and during most nights, patrolling had to be done under stormy skies – including thunder and lightning (some nights the patrolling shifts were cut short because of the lightning). While volunteers were out patrolling for nests, bugs were out patrolling for a meal, which they found in the volunteers’ bodies. After a night’s work exhaustion, sand, bug bites, and the overall heat took a physical toll. Yet, the following day would always bring surprises, including a hatching of a nest! Once hatched, baby sea turtles were liberated by the volunteers.

By the end of my stay at the turtle camp, I had realized I had not only given my time and physical labor, since I had gained much more in return. I had met people, learned much about an animal that has fascinated me for most of my life, and had seen a new way of life and community that extended further than the regular local community; a global community that now defines our age.

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People of Change welcomes readers to share their experiences and ideas pertinent to the project’s goals. Feel free to contact us at people@fernandosapelli.com