Guatemala: Volunteering at ARCAS, Saving Sea Turtles!

We have just had the most incredible week and I am so excited to tell you about it. When we were still back in the Netherlands, I was going through some Columbus Magazines that we still had at home. I found an article which listed 25 “green journeys” of which number 19 was in Guatemala. The title: “Save Turtles”. The article said that Guatemalan people collect sea turtle eggs for consumption and therewith endanger the 8 existing sea turtle species. As a volunteer at this project, you would patrol the beaches at night and protect the eggs from being taken by people with bad intentions. I immediately sent a picture of the article to Anne and from that point we have been looking forward to contributing to this great project. After a month of travelling in Guatemala, we set out to join ARCAS. It was such a great experience; exhausting but rewarding. I hope you will enjoy the read and if you know of any other such projects on our route to the south, feel free to tell us!

When still in Antigua we planned to head for Monterrico by shuttle on Tuesday. The idea was to stay there for two nights to relax in a nice hostel as we just stayed in a 24-person dorm for two weeks. We seemed to be the only tourists wanting to go in that direction and therefore, the shuttle didn’t go and we had to postpone our plans. The day after, it didn’t go either… I guess we found one of the few disadvantages of travelling in low season. So instead we set out on a great adventure, getting to Monterrico using Chicken Buses. Chicken Bus is just the travelers’ nickname for the type of buses which locals use in countries as Guatemala. For locals its normal, for us it’s definitely an experience. Its called a chicken bus because people literally take anything with them, including chickens. We didn’t meet any chickens, but its cool to experience this part of the regular Guatemalan life. It was challenging to enter the bus with our backpacks as there are always a number of people in the bus trying to sell food and drinks. When the bus starts to drive, someone may get up out of his seat and will go around distributing something that he has in his bag, and will start his 15 minute talk about how great this product is. Then you will have the opportunity to either buy the product or give it back. Next, a guy may get up with a bible in hand starting his 20 minute monologue about religion and about how there is still hope for all of us. It all may seem a bit intimidating but everyone is in general very friendly. Of course such a ride doesn’t go by without someone telling Anne that she has beautiful eyes. As I told you, it was an experience. After taking three different buses, we only had a beautiful boat ride through the mangroves ahead of us, before reaching Monterrico. A shuttle would definitely have been easier, but we were both quite happy that circumstances forced us into trying out this way of travelling and will likely make use of it in the future more often.

We still went for our chill-days and checked-in at El Delphin hostel, which was great. The hostel had a very nice pool and a nice restaurant with a great view at the beach. The waves are absolutely massive in this area, and a swim in the sea is therefore everything but relaxing, but it’s a good workout. Luckily the hostel had a pool. The volcanic beach’s sand is entirely black, which makes for a very impressive view.

On our last evening, a sea turtle showed up on the beach close to the hostel. We went to check it out and found a group of locals digging up, counting and taking the eggs for business purposes. We already knew that people take advantages of animals in any many ways, but seeing it like this really frustrated us a lot, and from that point we really couldn’t wait for our work at ARCAS to start.

Arrival at Parque Hawaii – ARCAS

On Friday morning, we hopped on a bus which brought us to Hawaii, the village on the Guatemalan coast where ARCAS can be found. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by Grace, who showed us our dorm room and later gave us a presentation on the activities of ARCAS and of its necessity. The sea turtle’s existence is heavily threatened, caused by waste in the ocean, fisherman’s bycatch and by locals taking the eggs and selling them. People believe consuming the eggs will help them getting a baby, this because Olive Ridley turtles (the most common type in the area) lay around 100 eggs per nest about three times per year. Although this is proven not be true, it is a practice which is difficult to stop. Guatemala is one of the few countries where this is legal. Grace also gave us a tour around the Parque, which is home to not only turtles but also a number of other animals. The parrots very much reminded me of my Spanish vocabulary a few months ago, greeting everyone with a very well pronounced “Hola” or “Buenos” (this is a bit confusing at first).

Upon arrival, there was only one other volunteer at the Parque and some more arrived during the week. Together, we tried to assist ARCAS as much as we could in their mission to protect nature. Its nearly impossible to cover everything that ARCAS does, but I will do my best to describe some of our experiences.

Sea Turtle Conservation

The main activity of ARCAS is Sea Turtle conservation. The different sea turtle species are on the edge of extinction. ARCAS is one of the organizations which takes up the responsibility to safe these wonderfull animals. Because really, aren’t sea turtles one of the most awesome creatures known to earth? Always floating around the whole world and eventually finding their way back to the beach on which they were born, just so they can lay their eggs. Sea turtles can lay around 100 eggs at once. Normally, only 20% of the eggs become a baby turtle and then only 0.1% of those baby turtles actually become adult and are then able to lay eggs themselves. These odds are not great, which makes it even more important that the animals are protected from the influence of humans. ARCAS significantly improves these odds.

Every evening while other people are reading a book or are watching TV, the people of ARCAS Hawaii patrol the beaches looking for sea turtles. The timing is based on the tides as these influence the chances of encountering them. With two patrols at night there could be one from 8 until 10 and the other from 12 until 2 at night. Regularly we were accompanied by heavy rains and the craziest thunder I have ever experienced (rain season), which was actually really cool as the lightning makes for a beautiful view. In between shifts, we would mostly just chill/sleep in one of the hammocks in the common area. The mission of a patrol is to find the turtle before a local does and bring the eggs back to the hatchery and bury them about 45 cm deep in the sand. It can be that a local finds the turtle first, in which case we would purchase the eggs from them. Anne and I managed to collect quite a few eggs ourselves, which is such an awesome feeling as we know now that some extra turtles may be floating around in the ocean during the coming decades because of our assistance.

45 to 60 days after being buried, the eggs hatch and many little baby turtles crawl up upon the sand. ARCAS does a lot of research, and has by doing so managed to increase the success rate for an egg to become a baby turtle to 92%, which is an immense improvement of 72%! Fun fact, the gender of the turtle is determined by the temperature of the sand in which the egg is buried. This therefore needs to be controlled well and makes temperature checks three times a day necessary.

A very rewarding task is the “Baby turtle check”, where you walk up to the hatchery to go check for baby turtles. If there are any, you put them in your bucket, walk up to the beach and release them into the sea. Because it increases the chances of survival, the eggs often hedge at the same time. Sometimes, you get over 100 baby turtles at once!

In an attempt to increase its impact, ARCAS is building a new hatchery a few kilometers east of Hawaii. This doesn’t come easy unfortunately; we spent the necessary hours together carrying sand from the beach into the hatchery with large buckets on our shoulders. A rough morning it was, but we know what we do it for!

Mangrove Reforestation         

The village Hawaii lies exactly in between the Pacific ocean and a large mangrove forest. The mangrove forest, beautiful as it is, is home to many animals and is of high importance for the regional ecosystem. In its search for business, people destroyed a large part of the mangroves for agriculture. A few months ago ARCAS bought a large chunk of ground and attempts to give it back to the nature. It plants new mangrove trees on the land and does the necessary maintenance. On one morning we headed into the mangrove with our machetes. After a beautiful half an hour boat ride through the mangroves, we arrived at our location. Our mission was to cut away certain plants from the mangrove trees that were planted by ARCAS earlier. Imagine someone going through the jungle while swinging his machete all around him to get through like in a movie, it was something like that. It was awesome!

Unfortunately, deforestation is a problem that not only occurs in this area. Throughout the world, people are destroying forests to make space for agriculture. Especially the meat industry is a huge factor in this as keeping animals takes up a huge amount of land and feeding them even more, as you also need land to for example grow the corn that they eat. What we did here is great, but its sad that its necessary. If we would all (yes, including you) just cut down on the amount of meat that we eat, that would already help out a great deal in saving our planet. Thanks!!!!

Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation

Animal trade unfortunately is a big thing in a country as Guatemala. ARCAS tries to discourage these practices and gives animals an opportunity to rehabilitate and get back to nature. ARCAS Hawaii is home to sweet water turtles, parakeets and parrots. During our stay, a pregnant Iguana was brought in by a local. These need protection as people apparently find that pregnant Iguanas are a bit more tasty… Also during our stay, a beautiful but injured hawk was brought in. The staff did everything they could, but it was in such terrible condition that it unfortunately did not survive.

Apart from in Hawaii, ARCAS also has an animal rescue center in the most northern province of Guatemala, Petén. Here they help various types of monkeys, birds and even jaguars rehabilitate from either injury or captivity. The goal is to eventually release them into nature, a second chance for all these beautiful animals.

Beach cleanup

A challenge which we tried to take upon ourselves is the cleaning up of the beaches. The locals seem to use their whole village including the beach as a trash can. With that, a lot of waste washes up from the sea. The problem in this is that eventually all trash will end up in the ocean, especially plastic. The biggest type of sea turtle which gets up to two  meters long, the leatherback turtle, eats jelly fish. Plastic bags are easily mistaken for jelly fish when in the water, which will kill them. During our week at ARCAS, we participated in a few beach cleanups and it was nice to help out in this, but it is a bit sad to realize how much trash is on these beaches. I hope awesome projects such as “The Ocean Cleanup” in the Netherlands will help us to cleanup the oceans and get rid of the tons of trash which we dumped in it. I suggest to everyone, if you ever go to a beach, just bring a trash bag and fill it up with all the trash you can find. If everyone would do this, it would already help a crazy lot!

The beach cleanups are part of ARCAS’s environmental education programme, Rally Parlama. It is important that the people of the future have a different mindset on how to live. ARCAS teaches the children long-term sustainable thinking and behaviour. Rally Parlama entails that the children help ARCAS in five activities and if they complete it, they have the chance to join in a field trip to Guatemala City. One of these activities is the beach cleanup. I am not sure if Dutch children would put so much effort into a chance of winning a trip to Amsterdam, but for these kids its awesome as they rarely get the opportunity to leave their village.

Is there any free time?

Yes there is! Although its sometimes a bit unpredictable. In the weekends volunteers generally don’t work and have the chance to for example visit Antigua, Monterrico or a nearby hotel for a swim. It is important to note that volunteering for nature is more about doing what is necessary than about doing what is convenient. Therefore you may not always get as much sleep as you would want to, or you would have to get up in between in order to check for baby turtles. Sometimes we have to get up early to head into the mangroves as we want to avoid the afternoon heat, sometimes we can sleep out. In general, the volunteers don’t have any activities in the afternoon. In these hours, you can just chill in the hammocks for a few hours, read a book or practice your Spanish. Almost every day, we would go for a swim in the sea with the guys, which was great! Or you can watch the beautiful sunset from the watchtower placed directly next to the beach. We didn’t have to worry about food, luckily, as three wonderful meals were prepared for us almost everyday!

Our week at ARCAS is now over and we must say the experience was much shorter than we would have liked, but the road is waiting for us. In conclusion though, we can say that we look back on an amazing and very inspiring week. We have learned a lot, and are more than happy to have contributed to what this organization does. The great thing about volunteering at ARCAS is that everything you do directly impacts the future of animals and other nature. A few buckets of sand extra results in the possibility for new turtle nests. Every extra plant that is cut away from the tree makes that the forest will be great and mighty again sooner. Walking a hundred meter extra makes it more likely that you will find a turtle. Each child educated in environmental awareness makes it less likely that people will continue messing up our beautiful planet and make it more likely that the locals will support projects as this in the future. What the people do here matters, and we are incredibly happy to have contributed to it. If you agree with me, have a look at the website of ARCAS and check out how you can help. A donation can already mean that ARCAS can purchase another nest of eggs from a local, and you would potentially safe 100 sea turtles!!! Also, feel free to share this article with your friends and family, as awareness is the first step to saving our planet.

Thanks a lot for reading and you will hear from us soon! Greetings from Nicaragua, because that is where we are now.

3 thoughts on “Guatemala: Volunteering at ARCAS, Saving Sea Turtles!”

  1. Wat een verhaal weer. Top dit allemaal te lezen. Hoe krijg je het beschreven en geschreven. Mooi dat jij dit zo op papier zet. Ik ben hier echt trots op.

    Like

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