We emailed Vicky who leads the Association for Saving the Turtles of Parismina (ASTOP) with our request to volunteer for the cause. We heard back from her promptly, with a comprehensive outline of the program, requirements, accommodation, donation, etc. Getting to Parismina is a bit tricky, but we got there fine and got set up in a homestay with a very nice family.
The organization requires a minimum commitment of 5 days, registration fee of per person, and accommodations with a family include meals for per day. Expect plenty of gallo pinto (rice and beans) for all meals, plus some sides of meat, salad, patacones, etc. It would be very easy to ask for vegetarian meals as well. Accommodations are basic, safe, and with a very friendly family. When we were there, we had three other people staying at different houses in the village, and everyone had pretty much the same experience.
Work is pretty simple. During the nesting season, you will patrol the beach every night for eight hours (two shifts of four hours each) which is usually the prime time for turtles to come to the beach in search of suitable spots to lay eggs. The idea is that, with the presence of other people, poachers are unlikely to step in and steal freshly laid eggs or kill pregnant turtles for their meat or shell. This patrolling has yielded impressive results.
Usually you’d be paired up with a local guide who have experience with handling turtle eggs. They will accompany you on the patrols, rescue and relocate eggs as they see fit and camouflage the site. There’s a notebook to record the time and exact spot where eggs are buried. Later in the season there is also a hatchery that is built by the sea, monitored 24/7 by volunteers. It certainly helps to be fluent in Spanish. My Spanish is enough to get by and small talk, but not particularly useful to talk about turtles!
Watching a turtle lay her eggs is an incredibly fulfilling experience. When a turtle comes on land, she will scan the area for a right spot to lay eggs. This is a very impressive process to watch: The turtle leaves a very clear track as she approaches and goes around looking for an appropriate place. She will then dig, and I mean dig a very deep hole, and lay eggs. Once the eggs are laid, she will cover the hole with sand, compact it, and return to the sea. The whole ordeal can take upto an hour.
The turtles are sensitive to light and sound and picky about the right spot – it has to be sufficiently away from the ocean tides, particular consistency of sand so that the little ones can dig out, etc. Once the turtle is laying eggs, she enters sort of a state of trance, so I took the opportunity to touch and pet her. These turtles are gigantic!
During our four nights of patrolling, we encountered four massive leatherback turtles, two of which laid eggs while the remaining two returned to the ocean (they would return in the next day or two). We also saw one green turtle, and only tracks of another – at least they led back to the ocean so the animal wasn’t slaughtered. The number of eggs deposited is immense, and near the end of it there will be some unfertilized eggs deposited on top. Over the next few weeks, these eggs decompose and provide a supporting structure and breathing space for newly hatched turtle babies. It is necessary to hatch the turtles this way since a baby turtle will have the process imprinted in its memory and will know what to do once it grows up. Only 1% of hatchlings will survive to adulthood.