Landing on Bird Island, I had no idea about the role I would play in trying to save hundreds of endangered, green sea turtle hatchlings. Volunteering took on a whole new meaning when I went exploring in the Seychelles archipelago.
“Let’s go to Bird Island!” my friend suggested.
Of course, why wouldn’t we take the opportunity of a 30-minute flight from Mahe Island, to visit the most northern point of the Seychelles archipelago? I was midway through my 10-week role as Dive Scholar on GVI’s marine conservation program and had a weekend off.
But what I wasn’t prepared for was the unusual balance between humans and wildlife in this conservation utopia.
Bird Island is described as “an ornithologist’s haven”. It’s home to approximately 1.5 million nesting sooty terns: a vast increase from just 15,000 pairs in 1967, as a result of one of the world’s first ecotourism projects.
Bird Island is proud of its Sooty Tern Project, which has rescued the species from decline. The Whitetail Tropicbird Rehabilitation Project has increased numbers from just one breeding pair to 90 pairs in a decade.
And, the Seychelles Sunbird Translocation Project has allowed these chirpy birds to blossom and breed all over the island, since their introduction from Mahe Island in 2006.
I could see some puzzled faces. Frowns of concern. A hole. But hands, fingers and arms were hard at work. Sand was flying up and getting scattered in the equatorial breeze.
“It’s a green.” I heard someone shout.
I’d learned enough about Indian Ocean conservation from my GVI experience to know that green turtles are a rare sight, despite their numbers, and are also endangered. They’re bigger than hawksbills and carry an air of majestic elegance in their slow rambling movement.
But it wasn’t the actual nesting turtle they were pursuing.
“Get digging,” they urged.
Without hesitation, I was on my knees, soon slipping about, a foot deep in dusty white sand. Scooping fine, sugary handfuls up and out on a blowy beach seemed futile. The wind whipped it back in our faces. But slowly we made progress. Scratchy hands fought one another as sand slipped back in and orders were made to try to the left, or the right.
Dusk started to simmer over our project, casting a pinky time warning.
Robbie monitors and tags all turtle nesting activity on the island: where and when they lay, how long they stay on shore, dates of predicted hatchings, numbers of adults and babies, and the rising or lowering of population rates.
His eagerness and urgency was clear by the pace and wobble in his voice. We had to move fast and with delicate care to give these tiny creatures any hope of life.
One by one, via a human hand chain, we maneuvered over 150 eggs from sandpit chamber to safety. Each one’s frosted glass appearance reminded us, with every scoop, just how defenceless they were. 150 little pockets of nature sat there waiting for the hungry tide to whip them prematurely out to sea.
Grey-pink light loomed eerily over the darkening water, which licked at our efforts just a metre away.
These little turtle eggs would never know the danger they were in. If the mother had just chosen to make her nest a little further away, we could have left them alone.
Sweaty but satisfied we filled the hole back in and scanned the horizon for the beedy watch of any lurking adult turtle worrying, or waiting to intervene. None were to be seen.
Out there, isolated in a huddled bunch, we were the visitors, humbly assisting nature. Perhaps the ocean is a few green sea turtles stronger thanks to Bird Island.
What turtle conservation volunteer opportunities await you, on land or below water? Find a program and apply today to see where you might make a real impact.
Emily Shelton is an intern at the GVI Writing Academy. The Writing Academy is a skills-development program that pairs development editors with budding travel writers. Learn more about the program here.
By Zaytoen Domingo
Zaytoen Domingo is a content writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently enrolled in the Masters program in English at the University of the Western Cape. After graduating with an Honours Degree in English and Creative Writing, Zaytoen completed a skills-development program for writers and became an alum of the GVI Writing Academy.
Climate change and rising sea levels: 5 Pacific Islands that no longer exist
Increasing global temperatures and rising sea levels: the effects of climate change are taking a toll. Contribute to global environmental conservation efforts by joining a GVI wildlife conservation or marine conservation program.