I worked with the Turtle Foundation in Cape Verde for two months in Summer 2009. This is an organisation that makes a real difference; poaching rates have dropped 80% in 2009 compared to 2007 figures, without this intervention, the turtle nesting population of this island could be extinct in under a decade. Please read my blog entry below from the TF website :) At the end of May this year when my degree course was complete, I had a choice to make; stay in my comfy-but-boring office job, or do something out of the ordinary. My degree was in Biology and I have always loved animals (especially reptiles) so the turtle project in Cape Verde looked like a good fit for me. This turned out to be, unequivocally, the best decision I have ever made, and something I would recommend to anyone looking to volunteer in 2010. I arrived at the airport from a very rainy Manchester on 20th July, not having slept for 2 days and still ill from a brutal going away party a few days previous. Nonetheless, the sights and sounds of Boa vista’s alien landscape galvanised me, and I was on my first patrol on Canto beach with Joana that very night, seeing five turtles! My first week was spent training on this beach, and fooling around with the only other volunteer there at the time, my good friend Mathias. It was a brilliant introduction to the project, a million miles away from all the dreariness and glum faces in England. Loggerhead turtles up close are amazing, powerful creatures. One must have the upmost respect for animals so tough they have managed to remain unchanged for millions of years, a true miracle of evolution. It is very humbling to bear witness to one of nature’s great events, namely watching these endangered animals dragging themselves laboriously from the ocean to build their nests. Each encounter with them is an amazing experience, from watching over the females whilst they bury their eggs, to helping hatchlings find their way home to the sea. The turtles can also astound you in unexpected ways too. On dark nights, their shells glow blue when touched due to bioluminescent zooplankton present on the turtle’s carapace, a beautiful natural phenomenon. If you crave action, this is the place to come! My first week at our southern camp, myself and Corporal Elson were patrolling Lacacao beach when six suspicious-looking figures appeared from the gloom a hundred yards from us, with a very angry dog. After a lot of shouting and squaring up (brought to a conclusion by Elson cocking his rifle and aiming at them!) we arrested a guy who was carrying a full bucket of turtle eggs! I had several other close encounters with poachers whilst I was there, and it hurt every time they managed to get away, but catching them in the act is extremely difficult. I lost count of the times myself and a soldier sprinted down a beach (still pushing around 30â°C at night) to check out a light which could be a poacher, only to find nothing but tracks. One of the coolest things about this project was driving the 4X4. I remember riding with some soldiers and a fellow volunteer, Becky, to Norte beach one night via Espinguera. The road there is very rough and great fun to drive, especially with some good rock music blasting out. We talked about what people were probably up to in England at that very moment, most likely slumped in front of the T.V. vegetating, whilst we were here driving through the desert, about to march up and down a beach with guns looking for poachers. Makes you think! Another time, again on Norte (probably the most fun beach, its more like rock climbing than walking) our tent was destroyed by a huge storm, whilst we were still inside! This prompted a mad race through ferocious wind and rain to Canto beach, to get the teams off the beaches before we were stranded by flash floods blocking the roads. We made it back to base, soaked to the bone, but very happy to make it back! It may sound strange, but even the bad parts were kind of fun, because it is all part of the experience. I was constantly sunburnt, had maggots growing in my legs due to fly bites, was always dirty due to a lack of shower water, but loved every minute of it. The best thing about this project is it makes you remember what is truly important in this life; camaraderie and friendship, not money and possessions. The people of Boa vista own very little, but enjoy life much more than their wealthy European counterparts. Soldiers who had no particular reason to bother with me sat there for hours teaching me Creole, and became close friends as we spent so much time together. Goodbyes were difficult. I have many enduring memories of these boys, like my friend Adersion lending me his trainers when I forgot my patrol boots, or Aderito teaching me how to clean an AK-47. One month after I have returned to Manchester, I still miss the beaches, the turtles, and the night sky, which was filled with shooting stars. But being part of the team is what I miss the most. The project leaders are truly passionate about their cause, and fellow volunteers become like friends you have known for years. I have decided I want to continue helping this project from UK, organising fundraising and recruiting new volunteers, in the hope future generations can experience what I have. Who knows, maybe I will go back myself one day soon, and implore anyone considering going to give it a shot, you won’t regret it.
It is 7:30 in the evening and everyone is ready to go, the volunteers with their sleeping bags and torches and the Cape Verdean soldiers with their AK47 rifles. Ten of us get on to or into the pick up truck and head for the beaches. It is already quite dark as we head down the dirt tracks; Christian (who is head of the Turtle Foundation on Boa Vista) is driving, he knows these tracks well but even he has to be careful due to the constant changes made to the tracks by the heavy rain. We arrive at our first destination, Norte Beach. Here two of the soldiers along with two of the volunteers, Eva and Kasia, get out of the back of the vehicle and head for the tent on the beach. The rest of us continue on towards our final destination on Canto Beach. We arrive and place our sleeping bags into the tent, Christian, Magda and I, along with one of the soldiers, head to the beach to start the patrol. Harrie and the other soldier lie down and try to get some sleep. The first patrol is from 8pm until 12:30am. It is now very dark, the only light is from the new moon and the stars but there is a lot of cloud cover, it takes some time for our eyes to become accustomed to the conditions. Christian is coming on this patrol for the first hour or so in order that he can give me a briefing on the turtles. We start walking west along the beach trying not to stumble over rocks and other debris, the only sound is the non stop crashing of waves from the Atlantic Ocean. There is a very welcome cool breeze blowing off the land towards the ocean, the temperature is still near 30C. Christian explains the life cycle of the turtles to me. The females tend to return to the beaches where they were born to nest. They can build up to 6 nests in one season; this is probably nature’s way of literally making sure that they do not put all their eggs in one basket. The females wait for the coolest part of the night to come up onto the beaches, once they select a spot they will spend up to 90 minutes to build a nest and lay their eggs before returning to the ocean, it is during this time that they are at the mercy of the poachers. Some of the females will wander all over the beach before finally selecting a nesting spot; others will make several trips in and out of the ocean until they find the right spot. The eggs hatch after 7-8 weeks and the tiny turtles fight there way back to the ocean where they will be swept up by the currents. Unfortunately there are many predators on land and at sea that are waiting for them. It is estimated that out of every 1000 eggs laid only one turtle will make it to maturity. It takes 35 years for turtles to reach sexual maturity and even Christian admits that where they go to in the vast expanse of the world’s oceans is not fully understood. We reach the end of the beach and stop to rest for 10 minutes before turning around and heading back down the beach. In the distance we see car headlights, in the still darkness these could be many miles away but as we get near to the end of the beach we see a single light which is moving and heading in our direction. This is unusual because poachers would not carry torches that would give away their positions, however we feel obliged to investigate. Even in the darkness our figures could be made out against the light coloured sand so we move off the beach and into the scrub to wait. The light continues to approach but then stops, Magda the soldier and I give chase, Christian returns to get the car. When Christian catches up to us we have lost sight of the light, whoever it was will have clearly seen the car headlights and will have been alerted to our presence. This could be a diversion to take us away from the beach where the real poachers could be lying in wait so we quickly return to the job of patrolling the beach. Christian retires to the tent for some sleep whilst the rest of us continue to patrol the beach. Time passes surprisingly quickly and it is 12:30am, Magda and the first soldier return to the tent, I decide to stay out and go on the second patrol, I have not yet seen my turtle. Harrie and the second soldier emerge from the tent and find me on the beach, we start the routine again. We are about half way along the beach when Harrie raises his arm to signal us to stop. About 10 metres away is a dark line in the sand leading from the ocean and at the head of the line is a turtle, probably about 4 foot long, and she is using her flippers to slowly propel herself up the beach. She appears to stop and then turns around and heads back into the ocean. We move closer to see what is happening, there is a washed up tree branch on the beach which she has bumped into, this has caused her to abandon her attempt and return to the ocean. Harrie gets out his log book and makes a note of all the details, the soldier drags his boot through the turtle trail to mark it. We continue to patrol to the end of the beach and stop for a rest, after 10 minutes we head back down the beach, again half way down the beach there is a second trail up the beach but no sign of any turtle. On checking the trail leads up to another obstruction on the beach which has caused the turtle to turn around into the ocean, this is probably the same female we saw earlier. Harrie again gets out his note book and records the details while the soldier crossed the trail. By the time we get to the end of the beach I am feeling very tired, it is now 2am and I have at last seen my turtle so I decide to retire to the tent for some sleep. I am woken at about 4am by a trashing noise in the tent; the soldier sleeping next me in the tent is hitting a crab, which has entered the tent, with a stick. There are some set backs to sleeping on the beach in a tent, as well as crabs there are acid bugs which when crushed ooze a sticky liquid that causes nasty skin burns. I go back to sleep. At around 5:30am an excited Harrie enters the tent, the turtle came back again at around 4am and this time she made a nest. Harrie and the soldier waited until the turtle had finished and returned to the safety of the ocean. This is the fulfilment of the purpose of the patrols. We quickly all get up and grab our sleeping bags and mats and return to the pick up. It is now day light and we drive back down the tracks to pick up the soldiers and volunteers from Norte beach. On the way we pass some buildings in the distance which I recognise to be Baia das Gatas, a small community of fishermen and I suspect turtle poachers. We arrive at Norte beach and are quickly joined by Eva, Kasia and the two soldiers who have been patrolling this beach; they have seen nothing last night. We head back towards Fundo das Figuieras, on the way we pass two young men walking close to the beach and in the distance is a man on a donkey. Christian stops the vehicle behind a small hill and climbs to the top to see what is going on. Sometimes poachers will hide the meat from a kill and then return to it at a later date. After a few minutes another man comes by on a donkey, we figure that he will tell the other people of our presence so our cover will be blown. We head for home.