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Sophie Woodard - Sea Turtle & Coastal Conservation in Mexico

A larger turtle

As soon as I heard about Teaching & Project Abroad's 'Turtle Camp' - Conservation project in Mexico I knew it was the place for me. In taking a gap year, I already had set criteria in what I wanted to see, do, and experience, and Conservation in Mexico fitted the bill. It meant I could work as a volunteer in conservation of wildlife, a topic which I had always wanted to involve myself in, and I could visit a country that was unique in culture and way of life, not to mention totally different to my life in London! Plus it was peak turtle season when I was due to go, (September-November), which meant there would be lots to do; that really sealed the deal! So along came September, and I was off to Mexico for two months!

Having never even left Europe in my life, let alone been away from my friends and family for so long, I was inevitably excited, but also quite nervous. So, after a brief hiccup in Mexico City with a case of the lost luggage, I was relieved to be arriving at Teaching & Project Abroad's office in Guadalajara. Guadalajara is Mexico's second largest city, and make no mistake, it's huge! I was taken on a tour of the city. As every Teaching & Project Abroad volunteer is, visiting sights from cathedrals to markets, museums to streets lined with shoes shiners, finished off with a traditional Mexican lunch. I knew as I set out on the tour that I was in for some culture shock, and I wasn't wrong. Guadalajara presented a vast mixture of sights. From contemporary shops you might find at home, just metres from traditional Mexican food stands and shops.

Holding baby turtles

The city somehow managed to combine vibrancy with a relaxed attitude, and a modern outlook with what I now recognise as a thoroughly 'Mexican' feel. After my tour, we went on to get the bus to Tecoman, the nearest town to the Conservation project, which is much smaller than Guadalajara, with a real 'local' feel. But my anticipation was rising, and finally I was there, at the Conservation Project! I was shown around by Oliver, the camp manager, where I saw the corral where the nests are buried, the pools where some adult turtles are kept, and of course my tent!

The next day the work began, and I got stuck in. Jobs to do on the Conservation Project include camp duty, which is just basic tidying and clearing up, cleaning the turtle pools, feeding the turtles in the pools on a diet of fish and vegetables, burying eggs in the corral so they are incubated, and clearing out old nests so they are clean and ready for the new ones. All of these jobs could be hard work, but the two best jobs made up for it - patrol, and of course, setting the hatchlings free into the ocean, seeing them set out on a whole new life into the big wide world! This was always done at sunset, because baby turtles instinctively go towards the main light source, and this always made it all the more spectacular. The combination of the ever-stunning Mexican sunsets, and knowing you had helped the tiny turtles by giving them a better chance at life always felt special to me.

Me with the baby turtles

Patrol was also quite an experience, and all volunteers enjoyed it. At 12 midnight or 3am, you and a camp worker go out on a quad bike, up and down the beach, looking for nests made by turtles. When you find a nest, you help dig it up, collect and count the eggs, and record when and where you found it. If you're lucky, as I was on a few occasions, you catch a turtle making a nest and laying her eggs, in which case, you also measure the turtle. I always looked forward to patrol, and because it was turtle season, we usually got anywhere between 3 to 20 nests per patrol, which made it all the more worthwhile. Sometimes, if there were lots of nests, it could be quite tiring, but the exhilarating quad bikes usually kept me awake!

On nights that I wasn't on patrol, I would usually sit around with other volunteers, and we'd have campfires or just watch a DVD, but on most nights, you could walk out and find the whole camp over-run with baby turtles, and you literally had to watch where you stepped as you collected them up into safety.

Releasing the hatchlings

My time in Mexico was not just spent at the Conservation Project and with other volunteers (with whom I quickly formed friendships). I regularly went on weekend trips, either to Colima (a nearby city) to have a look at the markets (there is also an active volcano you can visit there), or to some of the most stunning beaches such as Manzanillera, or back to Guadalajara, where on Thursdays you can go salsa dancing with all the other volunteers, a great night that seems to be a Projects Abroad tradition. Mexico has a lot to offer in terms of things to do and see, and what I saw I really liked, which makes me think I shall definitely go back one day.

With other volunteers

My lasting impressions of Mexico are definitely hugely positive ones. I came not knowing what to expect, and therefore with an open mind, and I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness and warmth of everyone (not just, but including, Projects Abroad), the laid back relaxed attitude towards life, and also the sights the country had to offer, ranging from picturesque beaches, to imposing mountains and valleys, to magnificent churches and cathedrals.

Mexico has so much to offer, to all ranges of visitors, and will always remain particularly special to me, especially the Conservation project site. I really did have the time of my life and learnt a lot, ranging from how to spot a turtle's nest, and also a bit of Spanish, to quite different things, such as independence, how to adapt to whole new situations, and that I actually can cope with challenges I wasn't sure I could. I met a wide range of people, all of which quickly became my friends, and all the staff at Projects Abroad were always constantly friendly, and lots of fun! Mexico, and the Conservation Project brought out the best in me, and my time there gave me some invaluable life experience that I will never forget!

Sophie Woodard

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