A New Volunteer's Experience
by Becky Aud
I’ve always had a passion for animals and an affinity for the ocean. So, when it came time to look for new adventures, it was no surprise that I chose to volunteer for the Sea Turtle Preservation Society (STPS). The thought of helping sea turtles to survive and learning about their nesting habits and lifecycle seemed to be right up my alley.
As a new volunteer, I attended classes and trainings where I was filled with information regarding sea turtles and volunteering opportunities. There seemed to be so many ways to volunteer to help. I wasn’t able to decide on just one, so I jumped in with both feet and am trying multiple things.
I joined a Nesting Survey Team. The team I joined walks 2 miles of beach on Monday mornings. I’m not necessarily fully awake at the beginning of the walk (we meet at 6:15 am), but I sip coffee as we make our way down the beach. After walking 2 miles and getting some caffeine in my system, I’m generally ready to go for the day. Everyone is so knowledgeable and kind. The first morning, they took me under their wings and taught me about turtle tracks, how to tell if they are incoming or outgoing, how we mark them and all the procedures that go along with marking the nests. I really love learning and enjoy the morning walks and comradery. I’m excited to see and assist with the nest excavation after the hatchlings have emerged and hoping to be fortunate enough to see some hatchlings headed out to sea.
I also joined the Turtle Walks. These take place in the evenings (which is generally more my time of day) and involve educating the public and allowing them to see and experience a Loggerhead Sea Turtle laying eggs. So, I showed up the first night for training and a practice run. Again, everyone was so knowledgeable and nice. I went out scouting for Loggerhead turtles coming on the beach to nest. As we walked, we learned so much about the turtles, talked about the procedures to follow when we see one, and heard stories of personal encounters. Although we didn’t get to see a Loggerhead nest that evening, I did get to see a few turtles riding the surf onto the beach. It was very cool to watch them come in; cool, yet disappointing to watch them turn around to go back out. Just being able to see them from a distance was enough to get me pumped and excited to come back out and do it again.
A couple of walks later, I was scouting for a Turtle Walk with a team when we spotted a turtle up the beach actively nesting. The moon was almost full with some clouds covering making it look somewhat mystical. The permitted scouts decided this turtle would be the one featured for the public that evening. One of the scouts took me with her to get ready for the turtle walk group participants and wait for the turtle to lay her first egg. I was so excited, but I tried my best to remain calm. The permitted scout explained what we were going to do and how we were going to do it before we headed to the turtle’s location. Then we were off, up the beach towards the dune headed to the sea turtle. We came up behind her quietly and watched as she was still digging her egg chamber. She digs with one back flipper at a time. Curling the flipper to carry out sand and put it aside. This particular turtle had a lot of barnacles all over her back. We watched and waited. Once she started laying her eggs, we pulled back some sand from the rear of the nest to see into the egg chamber. I saw her cloaca, then I saw eggs coming out during her contractions. It was an amazing sight. The eggs looked like soft ping pong balls. The group participants came with other scouts and watched the egg laying until she finished and started covering the egg chamber. At this point the group was instructed to move back toward the water line and I was instructed to return the sand to the back of her nest so the turtle could use it to cover the nest. Then came time to check her for tags. the scout and I each checked one side of the turtle under her front flippers. As I was feeling for tags, I noticed how soft she was and then noticed her looking at me. Her head was so big. She was a big, beautiful, barnacled sea turtle. I didn’t want to leave, but we went back down to the waterline to wait for her to finish covering the egg chamber. As the clouds cleared and the moon was shining bright, she made her way back down to the water. Everyone watched as she went back out to sea. This was absolutely a totally amazing experience. Watching her lay eggs, seeing her barnacled back and being able to touch her soft flippers was a magical experience for me. One I will never forget and can’t wait to experience again and again.
For the future, I’m excited to say, I’ve signed up for the Sea Turtle Emergency Response Program (STERP) class for more training and hope to get involved with transportation, standings and salvage. There are just so many ways to help and volunteer your time. I figure I will try my hand at education, special events, the Turtle Crawl and beach clean ups as the opportunities become available.
After my magical Turtle Walk, I am hooked. I keep pinching myself because I can’t believe this is actually my life. A big thank you to all who are involved in the Sea Turtle Preservation Society and make things happen. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to be involved and help to make a difference.