So I’m home after 3 weeks volunteering with PICI on the Cook Islands Turtle Project, and after being back in the daily grind of work for only a couple of days I was quickly finding myself missing the island lifestyle of the Cook Islands. It is often that I find myself daydreaming about the time I had, the friends I made and the beautiful lagoon, beaches and people of Aitutaki. Volunteering with PICI was something that I wanted to be involved with as soon as I saw the advertisement for volunteers. I have always had a strong interest in sea turtles and marine life. So the opportunity to go and visit the picturesque Cook Islands and escape the daily grind, at the same time as learning more about these iconic animals was an opportunity which I could not pass up.
Volunteering on the project was incredible, but not for the faint hearted. Many a day consisted of long walks along beaches in hot, humid conditions or spending the majority of the day sitting in kayaks in the direct sunlight….Though I could definitely think of worse ways to spend my time! During my first couple of days there we walked around some of the motu to survey the habitat and identify areas where nesting would be more likely to occur. In the subsequent days we would then revisit these areas and survey them for recent nesting activity. Unfortunately there were fewer nests then were expected on Aitutaki, highlighting the need for sustained monitoring, by people such as PICI, before meaningful conclusions can be drawn.
In addition to these beach surveys, most of our afternoons would be spent traversing the lagoon on kayaks, looking for turtles as they came up to breathe, a mission which seemed much more successful! I was lucky enough to see a number of turtles come up next to my kayak for air, before disappearing back down into the lagoon. Some were so close you could actually hear them taking a breath before they submerged themselves again.
In addition to the kayak surveys we also undertook snorkel surveys in as much of the lagoon as possible. These surveys were not only a good way to look for sea turtles but also a great way to check out the other marine life which calls the Aitutaki lagoon it’s home. It was during one of these surveys in which I was able to positively identify a hawksbill turtle! To our delight this was the first sighting of this species of turtle in the lagoon. This was a great result, as up until that point the only evidence which we had that hawksbill turtles lived in Aitutaki waters, was information we obtained through meeting and interviewing some of the members of the local community.
The data which I was able to help collect during my time in the Cook Islands was not only interesting, but the survey work was also a lot of fun despite the unpredictable weather conditions. Having had some experience volunteering with other research projects in the past I had some idea about what undertaking field work involved. But what I was perhaps not expecting when I first arrived in the Cook Islands was to meet some amazing people. Not only was everyone involved with the project great company, but the local community were equally as incredible. Our hosts were very friendly and hospitable, and our regular trips to the local fishing club allowed us to meet some truly amazing characters. I would like to thank all of the people who I was lucky enough to meet during my stay for making my trip so memorable!
Although I left in the midst of the build up to cyclone Gary, with literally only hours to spare before the cyclone hit. My memories of Aitutaki have not been hindered by the recollections of the crazy winds, falling coconuts or torrential rain I experienced in my last few days in the Cook Islands. Instead I will most remember the beautiful sunshine, being covered in sand, lounging in the lagoon, the turtles and the people.