Thursday, 2 October 2014

Turtley Rockin' The Turtle Volunteer Programme 2014

"How beautiful a day can be
When kindness touches it!"
~George Elliston

Sometime in 2012, I decided to organise regular volunteering visits to the Turtle Conservation and Information Centre in Melaka, as it is a mere 2 hours' drive from the city, and because it does not receive as much volunteer help and attention as its more well-known counterparts in the East Coast.

The first Turtle Volunteer Programme I coordinated in 2012 was attended by my close friends as a sort of recce trip to see whether it was feasible to conduct a similar programme for the Malaysian Nature Society. We had our inaugural MNS Green Living Turtle Volunteer Programme last year, after overcoming some setbacks related to accommodation and time management. 

This year, buoyed by the confidence generated by the success of last year's programme, I organised the Turtle Volunteer Programme 2014 as a day trip, in order that participants make their own arrangements in relation to accommodation and transportation. I merely provided helpful links with the contact information of chalets and budget beach hotels in the area. This proved to be a very wise move as it reduced my workload and increased flexibility in the programme. 

Within weeks, I had registered 35 participants for the Programme, including families that registered as MNS members just to be able to participate in this Programme. I purchased biodegradable rubbish bags, cotton gardening gloves and other items necessary for the beach and hatchery cleanup.

My best-friend-at-work Karen signed up for the Programme and Aravind made the necessary accommodation arrangements for the four of us (i.e. Karen, Yanty, Aravind and me). On the morning of the Programme, Karen drove us to the Centre, but we missed a turning and ended up on a much longer route to the Centre. I tried my best to keep my anxiety in check and called up Encik Mat Hashim of the Centre to inform him of the delay and advised him to proceed with the educational video screening for the participants who had arrived. I was glad to see that many of the participants carpooled and most of the vehicles arrived full.

We arrived to find the video presentation over and the participants milling around the back of the Centre where the turtle rehabilitation/holding pool is. Thankfully, one of the volunteers, a kind gentleman by the name of WK Lew, had the presence of mind to take down attendance on my behalf.

We didn't want to keep everyone waiting longer than we already have, so we immediately got everyone to sign the Indemnity and Parental Consent forms and make the necessary payments,  and then we ushered those who have signed the forms to proceed to the turtle pool to commence cleaning the pool.

Aravind was a big help to me as usual. He was very organised in ensuring the forms were signed and ticked off my master list and he kept track of the payments and donations. I've become so used to having him around when I volunteer, quietly and solidly doing work in that sincere and humble way of his, that I don't know what I'd do without him anymore. I know I'm always nagging him to drive, purchase a car, learn how to do minor repairs and take charge of traditionally male duties, but often I forget to notice that he is good at the things that most people, male or female, are not good at. It was good to have him take care of the administrative tasks so I could hurry up to join the volunteers in the turtle pool and do the cleaning work. 

Encik Mat Hashim supplied us with steel wool and Scotch Brite scrubbers and we got to work cleaning the algae-coated tiles.

These hands may be little but they do important work, too! People often underestimate children's ability to do difficult and meaningful work. I believe that children have an instinctive love of nature and animals and we must nurture this as early as possible. I often tell children: "We can do hard things". These children here do not find 'hard things' and 'fun things' to be mutually exclusive.

The steel wool scrubbers were awful and tiny bits kept coming off them. I was afraid that they would end up in the turtles' food chain so I got the volunteers who were manning the hose to flush all the bits down the drain hole. The next time we come, I will purchase bathroom scrubbing pads and bring some old toothbrushes to reduce the risk of the turtles ingesting or getting hurt by the steel wool bits.

The turtles waited patiently for us to finish and get out of their pool.

One of the turtles decided to supervise the men at work. 
"Over there. You missed a spot."

Beautiful turtle, thank you for your patience in dealing with us. I hope you get your chance to be released back to the sea soon, once the marine biologists clear you as fit for release.

We used little pieces of sandpaper to clean algae off the turtles' carapaces and the hard parts of the turtles' heads. I was glad to see that there are only 3 turtles left. I think there were 6 turtles in here last year. The other turtles have been released. I think one has been transferred to another Turtle Conservation and Information Centre for research purposes. By research, I mean that the marine biologists will study their behaviour, diet and health. NOT that they will dissect or harm the turtles in any way.

What a transformation! The previously foul-smelling, algae-stained pool is now shining like new!

While waiting for the pool to fill up, we went out to get some ice-cream from a passing ice-cream man. Aravind got us all vanilla and chocolate cones.

The turtles looked relieved to have us out of their pool, and to see their pools fill up with clean seawater again.

Now to start our Beach and Hatchery Cleanup before it got dark. Each volunteer was given 2 rubbish bags and a glove, and asked to return in an hour with as much rubbish as we could each collect.

Single adults had an easier time of the beach cleanup than parents with young children. I could hear the parents going: "There! That bit of plastic bag, the red one, under the car! Can you see it?" to their children, as their children struggled to tell apart rubbish that should be collected, i.e. plastic bags, styrofoam packets, etc, from things that they should leave well alone, i.e. stones, twigs, leaf litter. It was the first beach cleanup most of the children have participated in, and so they needed extra guidance. Parents with children took close to 4 times as long to fill up their rubbish bags compared to the rest of us.

I hit the motherlode of rubbish at a picnic site along the beach. Here are three of us on our way there with extra rubbish bags to collect all the rubbish. I am glad I brought my rubbish claw along with me. Baida, Ricki and their children had brought five pairs of rubbish tongs along with them as well.

A group of 5-10 volunteers were recruited by the Centre staff to help spruce up the turtle hatchery.

Annieson guides her young son in raking up fallen leaves at the hatchery.

Karen sweeping up leaves and litter in the hatchery premises.

Beach cleanup in progress.

While cleaning up the picnic site, one of our youngest but most enthusiastic volunteers, Ana, came running up to me with a skinny, crying kitten that she found on the beach. While we were trying to figure out where the kitten came from, we heard more pitiful mewing and found a whole box of 5 kittens that someone had left at one of the abandoned beach stalls. They were obviously abandoned without their mother, and would die if we did not do something.

Thankfully, Baida and her family offered to bring the kittens home (as they were leaving for the city the same night) and foster the kittens until they could be rehomed. I informed her that I could lend her my cat cages and that the kittens would need to be dewormed and treated for fleas.

One of the kittens had both eyes sealed shut due to infection and another kitten had one good eye and another closed eye. Baida's older girl Kyla suggested cleaning the eyes with a little clean water. I wasn't particularly hopeful or optimistic that we could save the poor kittens' eyesight, and had wondered how on earth are we going to rehome one blind and another semi-blind kitten, but decided we had nothing to lose and started cleaning their eyes with a clean cotton glove soaked in drinking water anyway. I had just finished cleaning all their eyes when Kyla suddenly exclaimed: "Her eyes! They are open! She can see!" 

The kittens' eyes opened up after I wiped the gunk off them! Another 2 days and we may not have been able to save their eyesight! There was no cloudiness at all and their eyes could focus! I was so relieved and delighted that I shouted "The kittens can see! They are not blind anymore!" to all the passing volunteers. They were pleased for me and the kittens, of course, but they weren't crazy with happiness like I was. I was in danger of dragging random people off the street to show them that the kittens were able to open their eyes and see. So great was my joy.

Karen keeps a container of dry cat food in her car, so we filled up a little bowl with cat food moistened with water, and offered it to the kittens. They lapped at the food and water hungrily. Words could not express how grateful I was that the kittens are no longer blind, are able to eat on their own and would be fostered by Baida and her compassionate brood.

(Update on the kittens: We sent the cat cages and a litter tray over on Sunday, 28 Sept, and the kittens were alive and fine. I hope we manage to find good homes for all of them soon.)

With the Kitten Crisis averted, it was time for a group photo with all the rubbish we managed to collect. These are several dozen kilogrammes of rubbish that WON'T end up in the oceans. Thanks, guys!

At 6 p.m. the Centre staff instructed us to gather around the Turtle Rehab/Holding Pool for the turtle feeding session. The turtles were fed with squids, their natural food. This surprised many of the young volunteers, who had previously assumed that turtles are herbivorous, like many land tortoises are.

The children were thrilled to be able to toss squids to the turtles. Here they are (the turtles, not the children), feeding on fresh squid. I hope these three will be able to be released into the sea soon.

While the volunteers were cleaning up the hatchery, they found a nest of turtles that had just hatched. Much to everyone's delight, this meant that we have a batch of turtle hatchlings to release that evening. Out came all the cameras and camera photos to capture this momentous occasion.

The staff instructed us to form a 'V' down at the beach to guide the turtle hatchlings into the sea and form a protective barrier to stop the hatchlings from wandering off and getting in harm's way.

I was given the honour of tipping the box of turtles over on its side and watching the hatchlings clamber into the sea. This is always an emotional event for me. My maternal instincts tell me that they are too tiny and too vulnerable to be out on their own in the great big blue sea just yet, but the natural historian and conservationist in me reminds me that this is the right thing to do.

Cameras clicked and volunteers exclaimed in wonder as the hatchlings made their way to the sea.

Goodbye and good luck, sweet baby turtles! Please come back big and strong in 20 years to nest here again!

The volunteers grabbed the opportunity to enjoy the beach and sunset before we closed the Programme for the year.

Just so grateful to have Aravind with me, helping out every year and doing the best we can for the environment, the animal world and mankind.

We returned to the Centre for the informal closing ceremony and thanked the Centre staff for all their assistance and guidance. The cash donations were handed over to the Centre and each participant received a Green Living mini guide book and turtle keychain for their efforts. And so another successful Turtle Volunteer Programme has come to a close.

Aravind, WK Lew, Yanty, Karen and I went to one of the beach stalls for dinner, after which Aravind, Yanty, Karen and me went to check into our room at the Kemunting Beach Resort. We may have planned a night of genteel debauchery (involving junk food, not alcohol or sex, mind) but we were tired and I was out like a light before midnight, despite the fact that there was a horrendous karaoke competition going on outside. Still, it is good to be with friends, and we made plans for future volunteer programmes during the drive home the following day.

Lessons we took away from the Turtle Volunteer Programme 2014:
1. Plan your journey well, remember your route and always have a contingency plan in case you are delayed. I will have to remember to assign someone else, travelling in another vehicle, as the assistant coordinator to take charge in case I am delayed or indisposed.
2. Bring old toothbrushes and bathroom scrubbing pads to clean the tiles and turtle carapaces with. These are safer than steel wool scrubbers, cost almost nothing and would promote the reducing and reusing of resources.
3. Whenever you find or rescue a kitten with infected and gummy closed eyes, always try wiping their eyes with a clean cloth dipped in clean water immediately to try to get their eyes open. Apply eye drops or saline solution if you have any. If there is no pet store or vet nearby, human eye drops (e.g. gentamicin) from the pharmacy would work as well. You could save a kitten's eyesight if you manage to clean up his/her eyes and get them open in time before the infection claims the eyes.
4. Rubbish tongs and claws are a great investment. Particularly if you are not a fan of bending over and squatting a million times to pick up minuscule pieces of plastic foam from the sand.

To find out more about the Turtle Conservation and Information Centre, contact them at the numbers and address provided below:

Pusat Konservasi dan Penerangan Penyu
(Turtle Conservation and Information Centre)
Pantai Padang Kemunting,
Masjid Tanah,
Pengkalan Balak,
Phone/Fax: 06 384 6754



Dear Lynn,

Wowww what a wonderful event, perhaps one day you could include me and my family in the future events. Been to pengkalan balak few times at least now I know there's such a conservation palce for turtle ...good job :)

Abang Rizal

~CovertOperations78~ said...

Thank you for your kind and encouraging comment, Abang Rizal! Yes, we'd love to recruit new volunteers. We'd like everyone to get a chance to help the turtles and observe hatchlings being released. The next round should be between June or Sept 2015. Please look us up on Facebook, MNS Green Living. I will add you into the group and you will be informed of all our trips and activities.