Uruguay - El Pinar - Save the Sea Turtles
Mar 30, 2006
|It's been around six months since I last did any volunteer work. Considering I had planned on doing quite a bit of it while exploring South America, I decided it's time to stop having so much fun and time to get to work. Thankfully, I found a volunteer placement that provided both.
I was planning on heading to Uruguay next, so I did a bit of internet searching to see what volunteer opportunities exist there. Hmmmm, apparently Uruguay hasn't quite cottoned on to the volunteer concept yet...there was exactly one opportunity to choose from and I had to do quite a bit of digging to find it! So that's how I ended up in the quiet little community of El Pinar, located just outside of Uruguay's capital city, Montevideo, working for a marine wildlife conservation organization called "Proyecto Karumbé".
Karumbé is a non-government organization founded and run by a group of bright young university students, veterinarians, teachers, biologists, and researchers who work with coastal communities and fishermen on the conservation of marine wildlife in Uruguay. In the summer, they operate an interpretative centre close to the coastal border of Brazil that provides guided tours and information on sea turtles. In the winter, Karumbé runs educational programs directed at the coastal towns' schools. These initiatives have been very successful...so successful in fact that they decided to expand their operations by constructing a new year-round interpretive centre in El Pinar.
Through this new facility, called CICMAR (Centro de Investigación y Conservación Marina), Karumbé hopes to increase public awareness on issues such as loss of marine biodiversity, endangered species, sustainable fisheries, sea pollution, and marine conservation. The main stars of the new centre are sea turtles and sharks, both on the endangered species list. The new centre will also manage a rehabilitation program for the "rescue recovery and release" of injured sea turtles found during beach patrols, as well as a research program where the less fortunate ones will be studied to determine cause of death. Centres with such programs do not exist in Uruguay so this facility is being considered a true contribution to the development of the country.
Karumbé wouldn't normally need volunteers at this time of year, but they were on a two-week countdown to opening this new facility in El Pinar when I contacted them, and they definitely liked the idea of having an extra pair of helping hands to work on the long list of last-minute items.
There was a frenzy of construction activity underway when I arrived and a core workforce of around 6 Uruguayans. Different people arrived daily to help out, to the point where I basically gave up trying to remember names! Workdays were long and my tasks varied, although there was a definite theme of "painting" and "cleaning". Everyday I did a lot of both. Ironically, these are two tasks that I had always hired others to do for me when I had my nice comfortable life back in Canada! But that's what needed to be done, and as a volunteer you're there to do what needs to be done. On good days I was painting signs or cleaning display shelves. On not-so-good days I was cleaning turtle tanks!
One of my favorite tasks was caring for the 3 land and 5 freshwater turtles (mostly unwanted pets that had been "dropped off") that now reside in nice little habitats at the centre. I even got to witness a little bit of "land turtle loving" one day, and I felt like a proud parent when one of my land turtles dug a hole and laid 3 eggs.
Another good task was assisting the veterinarians with their treatment of the rescued sea turtles. For this I got to wear sterile gloves and act like a real doctor!
4 injured sea turtles arrived during the 3 weeks that I worked at Karumbé. Two small turtles, who we called Lela and Patricio, had had close encounters with plastic bags. Lela had been found on the beach tangled up in a plastic bag that had cut both front flippers. After a week of antibiotics, and xrays to confirm she hadn't eaten part of the bag, Lela's cuts had healed, she was declared healthy, and was released back to the sea. Score one high-5 for the good guys!
Xrays showed that Patricio had eaten a plastic bag (in the water, plastic bags resemble jellyfish, their favorite food). His whole intestinal system was pretty much bunged up and he basically floated at a weird angle in his tank all day. Poor little Patricio received more enemas and fluids and had more body cavities prodded and poked than any little sea turtle should ever have to experience in a lifetime, but the sad reality is, if he doesn't "pass" the plastic, it will eventually kill him.
The 2 larger sea turtles that arrived at the centre had had close encounters with fishing lines and were more seriously injured. One turtle, who they named Connie after me!, had numerous deep cuts and swelling to one front flipper where it had been tangled in a fishing line. Antibiotic/anti-inflammatory treatments were showing positive results and, although still there when I left, it was looking like Connie would fully recover and be released back to the sea.
The other large turtle wasn't so lucky. Both front flippers had been completely severed by a fishing line. Because of subsequent reduced mobility, this turtle's shell was also covered in crustaceans. The vets removed the crustaceans, but releasing her back to the sea would surely mean her death, so it sounded like she was to become a permanent resident at CICMAR.
The endless months of hard work, of which I was only involved with at the very end, culminated in the successful opening of the new CICMAR facility on 8 April 2006. It's a small facility but it's packed with lots of great information presented in an interactive and fun/interesting way. It's proof that wonderful things can happen, even on a limited budget, when big hearts are involved.
My volunteer assignment didn't end with the cutting of the ribbon and clinking of champagne glasses. In fact, my cleaning and painting skills were really fine-tuned AFTER the opening because other buildings on the property are being cleaned and converted into usable space.
Although I could've easily spent many more months working there, I made my final volunteer project the conversion of the previous guard's home into the new research laboratory. It's a tiny building but, man, the guy who lived there was a complete pack rat. You wouldn't believe the amount of disgusting junk I had to clear out of there before work could commence. I just kept praying I wouldn't find some dead animal (or live one for that matter!) deep in the bowels of some of the junk piles.
And so, 3 weeks later and with one final sweep of the paintbrush, my volunteer assignment was officially over. I might not have learned any new skills to add to my CV, but the friendships developed and the insights into Uruguayan culture were truly priceless. Everyone was so incredibly friendly, and after traveling solo for a while, it was great fun to be part of this hard working team.
Sea turtles have lived in the world's oceans for more than 150 million years but, following in the footsteps of the dinosaur, these ancient beings are now globally threatened with extinction. Their main threats to survival are persistent hunting, increased coastal development with subsequent destruction of nesting beaches, incidental capture in fisheries, and marine pollution. Please do what you can to protect them. Remember, somewhere out there is a beautiful gentle sea turtle who shares my name ...
"Another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."