It is late afternoon in Bali. World-famous Kuta beach resembles an overcrowded anthill: a messy mix of surfers, retired Australians with big bellies enjoying their Bintang beers on plastic chairs, partying youngsters and Balinese either socializing in the sand or selling all imaginable types of products. Some also offer up drinks from improvised mini beach bars as well as mobile Rasta style hair braiding services or massages.
The muggy and stifling heat of an average tropical day at the end of the dry season is finally easing up. Palm trees along the narrow beach promenade mercifully stretch out their long leaves to shelter the gathering onlookers who await the dramatic sunsets of Bali’s Southern Coast.
The Balinese Sea Turtle Initiative
In between all the hustle and bustle, a giant turtle raises its head and commands attention. It belongs to the Kuta Beach Sea Turtle Center, an initiative created by Balinese Mr. Agung and his wife Wayan in 2001 as a safe haven for sea turtle eggs, which are being laid on Kuta beach by the thousands each year. The programme’s goal lies in protecting the tortoises’ eggs from threats in their original nesting locations such as high tide, tourist traffic, feral dogs or irresponsible human behavior. In a safe and sheltered environment, hatching rates are increased.
It’s the first time for me to help in a Sea turtle program, and even though I have worked with animals of a much bigger size before, I feel quite excited and a tiny bit nervous. More than forty or even fifty people linger around the oval, sand filled open-air container that harbors the now hatched eggs and the incredibly cute baby sea turtles that left their shells just the night before and crawl around for the first time in their short lives.
Agitated and expectant sounding fragments of Malaysian, Indonesian, English, French and Italian around me fuse into a motley hotchpotch while we wait for Mr. Agung to give us instructions. Meanwhile, some trained volunteers carefully transport the sea turtles from their container to the point of the first encounter between the baby sea turtles and us international volunteer – bundles of excitement.
Mr. Agung is, even at first sight and before commencing his speech, a joyous force to be reckoned with. Bursting with energy, the founder of the Kuta Beach Sea Turtle Program addresses the curious multicultural crowd with an incredibly infectious enthusiasm that makes you feel in your bones how deeply he cares about the cause. While connecting with us volunteers for the day with a smile that seems as warm as an honest embrace, he tells us all about releasing the baby sea turtles back into the ocean and reveals some insightful facts about the conservation project.
How to be a true turtle friend
The work of the long-term volunteers consists in morphing into heroic turtle friends and rangers who patrol the beach all night long on the lookout for mother sea turtles that come out of the ocean to lay their eggs. They then go on to protect the mother turtle during the nesting process. Once she is finished laying the eggs and safely back in the ocean, the task concludes with the eggs’ relocation from the beach to the hatchery at Kuta.
Subsequently, it’s time to wait 45 to 60 days for the baby sea turtles to develop and hatch. Once they come out, it’s all about being quick, as the sea turtles should be returned to their natural habitat as soon as possible, ergo the day after their nightly hatching.
Mr. Agung tells us that their survival rate without help, with the eggs remaining at often chaotic Kuta beach, would be just 1 in 3000 – not very convincing odds and a huge driving force for the Sea Turtle program to work relentlessly towards bettering the baby sea turtles chances. General survival rates for hatchlings, baby sea turtles venturing to the ocean for the first time, are just 1 in 1000. After getting instructed in how to release the turtle into the Indian Ocean and encouraged to give “our” little tortoise a name, the excitement continues.
Tending to turtles or how to let go and trust the flow
My little turtle friend is handed to me in a small plastic container with a bit of water, and I need to keep a hand on top so it does not escape. I try to keep steady as I don’t want baby Grace to feel as if she were in a roller-coaster and to, therefore, get motion-sick. I am hoping a name like the one I chose could slightly increase her chances to make it in the unpredictable environment of the gigantic Indian Ocean.
Once the huge crowd of volunteers is safely at the shoreline, Mr. Agung gives us the sign: “Lower them down now!“, he shouts out excitedly and in a voice of determination against the backdrop of the crashing waves. I gently lower the plastic container and let Grace courageously crawl onto the beach. She seems a little unsure at first, but then her instincts lead her into the wide-open waters of the ocean. We all cheer the baby turtles on with everything we got and watch them getting closer and closer to the sea, incredibly tiny against the vastness of it all until they are absorbed by the waters, bravely defying the huge waves.
It might not be the final goodbye I fear it to be, as astonishingly the sea turtles that make it tend to return to the exact same beach where they were born, guided by the Earth’s magnetic field. According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, most female turtles come back faithfully to the same beach each time they are ready to nest. Not only do they appear on the same beach, they often emerge within a few hundred yards of where they last nested. “Grace, I don’t know to 100% if you are female, but I certainly hope so…Catch you later, sweet turtle friend, may we meet again”, I whisper with a slightly melancholic yet proud feeling as I watch the sun setting in all its splendor over Kuta beach.
- Facts concerning the Balinese Sea Turtle release: Between 2012 and 2013 there were more than 50,000 eggs safely relocated to the hatchery, and around 80% of these were successfully hatched and released to the ocean.
- Sea Turtle nesting season on Kuta Beach is from March to September each year.
- Sea turtle hatching season is from April to October each year.
- Nesting dates are an estimation only and the baby turtles will hatch naturally when they are ready.Early and late in the season the frequency of baby sea turtle release will vary.
For more information on the Balinese initiative and to contact the centre directly:
For more information on Sea turtles and their protection in general:
What can YOU do to help and protect sea turtles?
Check out defenders.org suggestions:
Back to you, dear reader: Do you have any experience volunteering with animals, or volunteering in general? Care to share a bit about your experience? What did you enjoy most about it? As always, I would love to hear from you:)