Student volunteers Katie Gilliland, Jenny Larson and Erin Sorensen pause for a photo as the biologist removes the turtle eggs from their nest to move to a safer location.
Volunteers Jessica Sorensen, Jessica Dalton and Erin Starkebaum were excited to help the Loggerhead turtle, "Veronica".

UNL Study Abroad Students Help Turtles of Cozumel

May 28, 2009
By Erin Starkebaum

Most people don't consider spending their summer vacations in Cozumel, Mexico volunteering for local service programs. For many, trips to Cozumel means roaming only the tourist strips and main plazas. Fortunately for the 10 University of Nebraska-Lincoln students studying abroad in Cozumel, they had the right contacts to help them get involved. Their leader, Professor Phyllis Larsen, has been coming to the island as a diver and volunteer for more than 20 years. This is the third Journalism 498 International Media: Mexico class she has brought to the island to do service projects while studying media in a developing country.

Seven of the ten university students chose to participate in the turtle salvation program. The City of San Miguel's Volunteer Salvation Program was started in the late 1980s by local citizens who were interested in turtle conservation to counteract the past harvesting of the turtles. As part of the ancient Mayan culture of the island, turtle meat and eggs were a common part of the indigenous people's diets. Loggerhead and green sea turtles make their nests on the unpopulated east shore of the island between April and September. They are especially vulnerable during nesting season when they come ashore to lay their eggs.

The salvation program works with local police and federal armed forces to limit activity on the east side of the island at night to prevent anyone from raiding the nests or hunting the turtles for their meat. Car headlights can also prevent turtles from coming ashore to lay their eggs. Only volunteers led by the trained biologists are allowed in the area for salvation work. Through extreme conservation efforts and education, the program's staff and volunteers hope to reverse the effects of the shrinking turtle population.

The same local brigades get involved each season and put in many nights every week. Volunteers are welcomed with open arms to give the regulars much needed rest. The UNL students split into two groups starting in the late evening and working until the early morning depending on the number of turtles and nests found each night.

The first group of students, Jenny Larson, Katie Gilliland, Erin Sorensen and BreAnna Haessler, volunteered for the night of May 22. They got as far as the Punta Sur Park entrance on the east side of island before the salvation effort was almost foiled. Though there had never been problems with the guards in the past, the students were not allowed to pass without identification. "It was a little scary since these men had big guns and kept shining the flashlights in our faces," said student volunteer BreAnna Haessler. "The biologists kept telling us everything was OK though and that was comforting. "

Though the biologists had authority to be there with volunteers, they had no choice but to return to the other side of the island to get their IDs. After the delay, the students were finally able to start their salvation work. They drove up and down the coastline in small pickup shining a red spotlight on the beach. Red light does not disorient the turtles or keep them from coming ashore. The first group of students didn't get to see a turtle, but they did find two nests. The first held 136 eggs which were moved to a safer marked location but the second was not ready to be handled.

The second group of students, Jessica Sorensen, Jessica Dalton and Erin Starkebaum went out the next night, and fortunately had no trouble with the armed forces. After one sweep along the beach, they waited out a small rain shower before making another round. "It was a little eerie waiting in the empty restaurant when it was pitch black," said student Jessica Sorensen.

On round two the students finally spotted a turtle! With great excitement, the students followed the biologists down the beach to the loggerhead's side where they found her laying her eggs. The students named her Veronica and took her measurements. The biologists were surprised to find that she was 13 cm larger than normal at close to 5 feet long. They removed 106 eggs from her nest and moved them to a safer location farther back from the water. By the time the nest was marked, Veronica had already returned to sea.

"My experience with turtles was once in a lifetime," said volunteer Erin Sorensen. "I don't know when I'll ever get the chance to hold a turtle egg again. I really felt like I made a difference. " Whether or not the other students felt it too, their volunteer work did make a difference. So the next time you are planning a study abroad trip or vacation, don't hesitate to check out the local service projects you could get involved with. The rewards of giving back are bound to be the most memorable parts of your trip.