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August 2013 travel news 23
A Week Watching Turtles
by Hattie Rowan
I was told at school how important this summer was for me to gain some
work experience, so on hearing about the Local Ocean Trust (LOT)
and their flagship programme, Watamu Turtle Watch (WTW) (http://
watamuturtles.com/), I jumped at the chance to volunteer with them. In
retrospect, my expectations of WTW were much lower than they should
have been: having thought I’d be lucky to see - and handle - two of three
turtle species. In fact, I did and saw so much more.
WTW started in 1997 and later joined with Local Ocean Trust, as it was
not enough to just help turtles, I was told, but vital to preserve the beautiful
Watamu beach. Having run for fifteen years now, WTW operates the
oldest buy/catch-release program on the African coast. I arrived, slightly
anxious, on Monday morning and was warmly introduced to the whole
crew by Ruth, the volunteer coordinator. I met with the two other volunteers,
a French couple, and we were shown around the centre which included
a fabulous turtle rehabilitation centre which was, fortunately, empty – I
was told that it has held up to 12 turtles at once. It is the only turtle rehab
centre in East Africa and takes in turtles that are sick or injured; to date it
has housed 230 turtles, 170 of which have been successfully and healthily
After our orientation we were whisked away to help build a board that was
going to be put up at the local supermarket bearing the slogan ‘DON’T
DESTROY WHAT YOU CAME TO ENJOY’. However, within ten minutes
of cutting up recycled flip-flops, Ruth came to tell us that we were needed
to exercise a rescue with Fikiri, the net release and rescue coordinator. I
climbed excitedly into the car feeling like a much younger version of David
Attenborough and we bounced along dirt roads until reaching a small
village where a Hawksbill Turtle was promptly handed over to us. Sadly it
was missing both right flippers as a result of being caught in a net. Fikiri
showed us how we needed to measure the length and width of the turtle,
weigh it and record all the relevant data. We took the turtle back to the
rehab but sadly I discovered the next morning that the vet had concluded
it didn’t stand a chance, as it would have endless trouble swimming, so it
was put down.
Fortunately, the two other turtles we rescued that day were perfectly
healthy, as were the ten others that I was able to rescue and release that
week, including a 40kg Green Turtle that I had to wrestle with in the car so
it didn’t open the back door.
Each turtle was tagged and the fisherman paid according to size, and
then we took them to the marine park where they were released. I was
amazed at the number of turtles we were saving, but Fikiri assured me this
was normal. It was obvious WTW have developed a secure
relationship with the local community as, instead of selling
the turtles for oil, meat and the shell for as much at Kshs.
45,000/-, fishermen are phoning in to surrender their turtles
for Kshs. 300/-. ‘We do get complaints,’ admitted Fikiri ‘as
fishermen have said that the money is very little compared
to what they could get’. However the system seems to be
working and WTW have done an incredible job of educating
the local community on the importance of conserving the
turtles. So far, they are working with over 300 fishermen and
21 community groups, and educate children in 27 schools.
They have released 9,700 turtles in total and more than 700
already this year.
When I was much younger I remember watching young
Green Turtles, newly hatched, making their way down the
beach and into the sea, and every beach holiday since then
I hoped to see such a spectacle again.
Last week I did, many times over. On the first day we were
taught how to carry out an exhumation of a turtle’s nest.
Three to four days after a nest hatches, Fikiri and Lewa (the
coordinator of turtle nests) exhume the nest. This means
analysing the success of the nest by counting how many
broken shells there are and how many eggs never hatched
as they were either undeveloped or died during development.
We exhumed four nests during my week and in each nest
there were some hatchlings that hadn’t dug their way out yet
and would not have done so without our help. Fikiri, Lewa,
the French volunteers and I watched each time with hands on
hips, grinning madly as the tiny hatchlings crawled furiously
through the sand towards the water, stumbling over seaweed
and falling upside down onto their backs. Upon finally reaching
the water, they were dragged up and down the shore with
the force of the current against their tiny bodies until finally
disappearing into the waves with a ‘good luck’ from us.
It was magical – except for the moment when I thought, to
my absolute horror that I’d stepped on one. Thank God it was
only a shell. Since WTW started, they have monitored over
590 nests and protected over 45,000 hatchlings on their way
to the ocean.
Every night WTW operate patrols along the beach and during
the week I was there they were up at 4am. Despite being
tired, the French volunteers enjoyed the patrols and I was
encouraged to stay a night to experience one, which I did.
The night I stayed we went down to the beach with Lewa
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