Six years later, I might finally have the distance, age and experience to reflect on the turtle conservation project I joined for a month when I was 16. It’s safe to say I learned a lot, and equally safe to say not much of it was about turtles. It had the excellent effect of persuading me to study Zoology, but aside from that I think I would call it valuable for all the wrong reasons.
Disclaimer: A quick glance at the website suggests some major changes to this programme in the past 6 years, and my experience may not be at all reflective of the experiences of volunteers there today.
TL;DR: Paid a lot of money and didn’t get very much for it except a healthily discerning attitude about which ecotourism projects I’ve gotten involved with since.
Location: Mexico, west coast, on a beach. 4 hour bus ride from Guadalajara, nearest town Tecoman.
Duration: I spent a month on this project. You can go for as little as a week and pretty much as long as you like.
Cost: I don’t remember exactly, but a month on the same project today would set you back £1,855 (not including flights).
Ahh Mexico, my first fieldwork experience. In a sense at least. Back in July 2011 my friend Emily and I embarked on an adventure to go save turtles for a month. With a (in hindsight) ridiculous lack of research, we chose Projects Abroad, largely because many other volunteer organisations have a minimum age of 18. We booked our project and got giddy with excitement for most of the next year as it approached.
The UK Office of Projects Abroad was excellent through this time, dealing with many enquiries from our (justifiably) worried parents and instilling a general sense of trust and competency. This only started to fall apart when we landed in Guadalajara.
Getting to camp:
Our first issues were with customs, as we couldn’t give the security staff permission to check our bags, being below the legal age of adulthood in Mexico (17). Not a major deal but to two 16 year olds who’d been travelling for 24 hours and spoke limited/no Spanish, a stressful and confusing setback.
That sorted, Alejandro from Projects Abroad took us as well as two other girls who were slightly older (though still young) to a hostel in Guadalajara and told us to be ready to go to the bus stop in the morning. As we’d arranged with the UK office that we would be staying with a host family in the city for the weekend, this also didn’t help. Emily and I were put in a 4 bed room with Jana, a 21 year old German also joining the project, and an older American woman. The latter was not quite of sound mind (high, I think) and freaked us out a fair amount. Her odd fixation on Emily’s suitcase led to us storing our luggage in the other girls’ room. In hindsight, possibly paranoid, but possibly not.
I won’t comment much further on that night except to say there were tears and no sleep.
Arrival at camp:
The next morning we took the bus to Tecoman and were picked up in the project minivan by Roberto, one of the staff. Arriving at camp was not a glorious moment – it was windy and wet and reasonably cold, the tents were in the ‘classroom’ because the shelter had recently blown down in a hurricane.
But we went down the lagoon, a short drive/20 minute walk from camp, where there was a bar that sold Corona, Sprite and Coke. We met some of the other volunteers there and had a drink. Everyone was really welcoming and seemed in good spirits, which was a needed positivity boost.
(Not quite everyone. One of the volunteers was crying on the beach due to some latest drama in her ‘relationship’ with Roberto, who of course was staff as well as 32 years old to her 19. This was easily one of the most uncomfortable aspects of life at camp. I can’t say whether it was the age gap, the position of responsibility, or Roberto’s personality that made it quite so discomforting.)
It’s hard to comment too far on the project, because it didn’t really happen. According to Projects Abroad –
Volunteers will take part in night patrols along a 30 km stretch of beach to identify new turtle nests, collect sea turtle eggs in order to relocate them to a safe place, and keep an eye out for poaching activity. You will also collect information about the in situ or poached nests for research and statistical purposes. Volunteers will monitor the nests where the relocated eggs have been placed, and once the baby turtles have hatched, help clean the nests and release the hatchlings into the sea. Other duties include the cleaning of adult and hatchling sea turtle tanks, the cleaning of adult turtles and generally looking after their well-being – ensuring that they are well fed, unstressed, uninjured and measured and weighed once a month.
Night patrols – I went on one or two on a quad bike, and one on foot. For the first two weeks of my month there, the quadbikes were apparently broken down. Night patrols were great, and on the one we took on foot I was lucky enough to see a turtle laying her nest. More of them would have been more great.
Information about nests – To be fair, when nests were collected information was recorded about the number of eggs etc. I would have liked to have more knowledge about where this was going and what it was used for. It felt fairly arbitrary, but probably wasn’t.
Cleaning nests and releasing hatchlings – Releasing hatchlings was definitely the best part of the project, and happened fairly regularly. No complaints here.
Cleaning adult sea turtle tanks – When I was at camp there were two disabled turtles in a small pond. They didn’t have much of a life, and although we did clean out their pool once in the month I can’t say I ever felt anything other than very very sad when I saw them. As for hatchling tanks, there were none at the time.
Volunteers will visit La Colorada Crocodile Center once a week, and help with clean and maintain the pens, as well as help maintain the centre’s facilities. You will also be involved in taking biometric data and marking the crocodiles in nearby lagoons.
I went to the Crocodile Centre once, and helped pickaxe up some of their driveway and cart the dirt by wheelbarrow to the enclosures. Maybe this was helpful? I hope so.
We also went on one birdwatching study on the lagoon, and I think a school came to visit once. Apparently now there is caring for iguanas to be done, biodiversity studies with camera traps, mangrove replanting, beach cleans, and an education and outreach programme. Obviously I can’t comment on any of this. I’ll confess I’m skeptical about how thorough each of these things might be.
For me all of this was the biggest loss. I genuinely wanted to go and be useful, and educated, and feel my time and money was worthwhile. My money may well have been – two Mexican biologists lived on site and for all I know they were carrying out great research and conservation that I was funding. But I didn’t feel involved in any of it.
We lived in tents on the beach (apparently now volunteers have a shared house between camp and town). There was a building the biologists lived in, which on the ground floor had our kitchen/office. Luggage was stored in a separate shelter that a really cool snake moved into.
Camping isn’t for everyone, and Emily would happily tell you she didn’t really sleep in Mexico. I can sleep pretty much anywhere and after the first week this wasn’t so much of an issue. There were shower blocks but the showers were essentially dribbles of salt water from the sea. Between showering in salt water, then putting on suncream and insect repellent, then walking out onto a black sand beach, cleanliness wasn’t really a thing.
I’ll say this much for it though – it was beautiful and had extraordinary sunsets. Unfortunately you couldn’t swim in the sea due to the power of the waves, but they were very impressive. You could swim in the lagoon, and the bar there was an added bonus.
Food was cooked by a local woman in Tecoman and picked up every day. This gave time for a trip into town for a drink at Chololo’s Bar and a taco dorades at the best taco stand in the world. Dinner was generally good, and lots of fresh fruit was provided.
On the weekends we took trips away, to Manzanillo and Colima. We went surfing, snorkelling, stayed in hostels, drank cocktails, swam in waterfalls and visited a coffee farm. These trips were great and although camp grew on me and I used to enjoy arriving back after a weekend away, it’s safe to say a month straight there may have driven me insane.
After the initial drama, tears and homesickness (surprisingly extreme), and once I got used to the dodgy organisation and learned not to trust them… I had a great time in Mexico. But I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. I learned a lot about travelling, and independence, and the necessity of a good book in a bad time. I learned that if that project had been done well it would have been the most incredible experience of my life, and that that was worth aiming for.
Now I know significantly more about these sorts of projects and where to find them, I know you can join things a lot more legitimate and valuable to both yourself and the animals you’re trying to help for a lot less money. You’ll be expected to work harder, but that’s a good thing.