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Watamu Turtle Watch Program

Listed under Volunteering Opportunities in Coast-Tsavo, Kenya.

  • Photo of Watamu Turtle Watch Program
  • Photo of Watamu Turtle Watch Program
Photo of Watamu Turtle Watch Program
Photo by flickr user smudger888
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It’s a clear night under sweeping Kenyan skies and I’m sitting on a quiet beach, waiting for something to happen. I’m in the company of people I was never expecting to meet, in a landscape I had only ever inhabited in my dreams and I, usually so busy and frenetic at home, wait patiently for hours for something my new friends have promised will happen.

The sand 15 metres away from us begins to shift, the girl sitting next to me gasps and the older African man puts a finger to his lips and turns his torch around. Then the sand appears to fall in and tiny flippers reach out, followed by tiny heads and tiny shells and suddenly two tiny turtles are breathing their first air and tumbling towards the sea. I can’t move, but the man springs into action whispering to me to keep an eye on the first ones, “Ghost crabs” is all he needs to say and I know what to do. As more hatchlings start to come over the top and follow their elder siblings I look out for the trail blazers, shooing the crabs, who appear so quickly on the scene to have been waiting there all along like us, away with my torch and my flip flops. It’s almost the dawn of my third day at Watamu Turtle Watch Program and I’m having one of the most amazing experiences of my life, helping sea turtle hatchlings, only a few minutes hatched, only a few inches inches in size, on their very first journey from their nest to the sea.

I’d arrived at the airport at Malindi hoping I knew enough to be useful and make a difference but wondering how I could possibly make a contribution. But by my third dawn, as well as helping those babies to the sea, one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had, I had also rescued a teenage turtle from a fisherman’s net and cleaned out the tanks in the turtle infirmary. On my third day I was booked in to go with one of the permanent staff to a local school where I would use my skills from my training as an English and Drama teacher (I’d just finished the second year of my degree.) to help teach some of the local children about conservation. I felt thrown in the deep end after a few hours sleep, but I was still so inspired by what I’d seen the night before that I taught with bright eyes and all the enthusiasm of the newly converted!

The project centres around Mida Creek in a National Biosphere Reserve, a beautiful bit of coastline with mangroves on one side and an inviting reef on the other. It’s here that sea turtles have dug their nests for probably hundreds of years, but changing human activity in the area threatens their continued survival. Watamu has always been a fishing village, but people didn’t always fish using poison and narrow strung nets which effectively dredge the sea. And people didn’t always come here to holiday and, though often unknowingly, pollute the sea. As well as the work I undertook in my first three days, volunteers to the program look after sick or injured turtles, help with geographical surveys of nest and coast changes, track turtle numbers and sightings, look after the environment the turtles depend on, by planting new mangrove plants for example, and raise awareness in the local and visiting community.

On a practical level that means as a volunteer you have to keep your wits about you and do a variety of different things, always representing the program. As well as the reward of really making a difference you get to spend time on a wonderfully perfect bit of African coast, swimming and snorkeling in your free time, and meet some truly amazing people with a real passion for the environment. I felt looked after and part of the program from the first, the accommodation was great and the people were just unbelievably generous. It was a real privilege and I can’t stress too keenly how much this experience enriched my life.

Written by  Sam Browne.

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