Lavender beetles and new growth

Kia orana

What an exciting time for PICI! It has been a full year, with much more to come. Like this hermit crab on Aroa beach, we’ve got a shell to fill and room to grow.

Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Tiffany, and I’m a marine ecologist, just arrived on Rarotonga to serve as PICI’s program manager. Other new names you’ll see here soon are Mareike Sudek, Jess Trewin, and Tommy Moore, part of the present team developing PICI’s conservation projects.

In the winter, PICI bid a fond farewell to Jess Cramp, our able program manager who made an enormous impact during her time here. It has been a pleasure to hear great praise for Jess from each local person I meet; all are sad that she is gone – but looking forward to her visit soon!

Dr. Mareike Sudek has been here throughout the spring working on educational modules and has taken over the lagoon-monitoring program for Aitutaki. We’re thrilled to welcome a team of volunteers next month for a survey expedition. The community of Aitutaki has been welcoming and generous, which is key to the program’s success.

Jess T. has been helping Mareike with the Aitutaki planning and other projects, including the rubbish round-ups scheduled for this month – we do hope to see you on Saturday in Muri! Check out the posters around the island for other dates and think about entering the trash art sculpture competition.

Dr. Tommy Moore is taking on the task of data management for PICI and establishing a scientific advisory board for our present and future projects. PICI is in line for productive growth this year, refreshing past connections and building new ones. The entire team is so pleased to be welcomed by the community here.

I’ve only been in the Cook Islands for just over a week, but it’s been a lovely week filled with intriguing things. I thought the tourist brochures were exaggerations, but people here really are as friendly as claimed! I’m scrambling to learn a new environment full of new species, and I’m enjoying each new name I find. The colours of many plants and animals here are so vivid and distinct from those with which I am familiar. I’d never seen a pale purple beetle before…

It’s great to ‘meet’ PICI’s readers, and I hope to hear from you soon. For the locals, I hope to see you around the island!

 

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Adventures as an RA for the turtle project

In February and March this year, I joined Phil as research assistant. We flew to Atiu to undertake the first ever turtle survey and habitat assessment there, and spent our days riding a scooter around beautiful rain forest, surveying the Atiuan coastline. A large part of the Atiu coastline consists of fossilized coral cliffs, and many of the existing beaches were small and tucked away between the cliffs, so we would climb, hike or wade our way to whatever beach we could find in order to assess turtle nesting habitat availability and look for turtle tracks. While some potentially suitable nesting beaches exist, they were mostly devoid of any signs of turtle activity, and we only found a single turtle track. Unfortunately, we were no more successful in looking for turtles in the water surrounding the island. The island is surrounded by extremely sharp reefs of fossilized coral, and the only break in the reef offering a somewhat safe way to enter the water is a man-made little harbor. While entering the water and swimming out of the harbor is considered crazy by most people on Atiu, Phil and I were determined to investigate the presence of turtles in the local marine environment. We patiently waited for a somewhat calm day to enter the water, where we were greeted by a few sharks, but no turtles. Despite the fact that we were unable to find any turtles on the island, they are historically known to be present in the water and nest on the beaches, so we used the opportunity to teach about their biology, importance to the ecosystem and their conservation at the local school.

Atiu is a small island with a population of about 500. There are a handful of small shops offering basic groceries such as milk powder, pasta, rice, crackers and, on a good day, onions. Since everyone grows their own fruit and vegetables, these are not offered in the shops, and are therefore hard to come by if you don’t own a garden, unless you are given the better part of a banana tree as welcome gift by your landlady, or you come across a wild guava tree. If you do find a guava tree, be sure not to keep the guava for too long, even in the fridge. If you do, be sure to check for maggots BEFORE you take a bite. Being on a tropical island, however, you could try to satisfy your craving for fresh food by devouring coconuts. If you plan on doing so, do NOT forget to bring a magic coconut husking device (aka machete), or you might yourself undertaking frantic attempts to get at the coconuts using anything from tree stumps to shoes and fingernails. While these attempts tend to end unsuccessfully, if you ever do find a way to husk coconut without a magic husking device, you might just belong to the selected few of unprepared people who survive being stranded on an uninhabited island, so don’t give up.

Personally, I was planning on putting my coconut husking skills to great use on the small, uninhabited island of Takutea, about 25 km from Atiu. Phil and I had planned on assessing the turtle nesting activity in this nature reserve during our time on Atiu. Kindly, the Takutea Trustees on Atiu granted us permission to carry out our work as planned. However, the turtle nesting season overlaps with cyclone season, and we were unable to find a fisherman willing to drive us to Takutea during this time. As our work on Atiu was completed for this season, we flew to Aitutaki to continue research efforts there.

Compared to Atiu, Aitutaki felt very busy. There are lots more tourists and people in general. One great thing about Aitutaki: it’s a great place to be if you like white beaches, coconut palms and calm, turquoise water. We managed to conduct a few exhausting kayak and snorkeling trips in the beautiful Aitutaki lagoon to look for nesting activity on smaller islands of the atoll and turtles in the water. When surveying the beaches for signs of nesting activity, we didn’t find any more nests than the 6 already identified during Phil’s last expedition to Aitutaki. We organized classes from various schools to join us on the beach for nest excavations and rubbish roundups and found 7 live hatchlings! While all their siblings hatched and made their way out of the nests and to the sea, they were trapped under rocks and roots, where we found them days later. Everyone was really excited to see these baby turtles, and we were even more excited to find that, after we reburied them in the sand, they had all gone to sea by the next morning! Our work with the schools also included giving presentations on turtles, whales and coral reefs and was rewarded with many presents from the kids, including self-made tropical jam (delicious!), lots of turtle and whale drawings, flower and shell necklaces and sarongs. When the time came for us to leave Aitutaki, the children from Tekaaroa Primary School organized a proper send off party with PLENTY of food and singing, and we were very moved by these amiable gestures.

Back on Rarotonga, Phil and I conducted a few more passage surveys and eagerly engaged in writing applications for funding opportunities for the following field seasons.

I feel very blessed for having had the opportunity to live and work in such a stunning part of the world.

On another note: If you ever end up flying to a highly remote island to work and live together with someone you have never met before, consider yourself extremely lucky if this person turns out to be someone like Phil.

Phil is friend to all animal

Phil is friend to all animals part 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We collected a lot of trash from the beaches

This is not a postcard

 

 

 

 

 

 

My most exhausting kayak to date. It was well worth it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cheers

Theresa

 

 

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A new era begins…

Today I will go to the airport to pick up our new Programme Manager, Mareike Sudek. The last 5 months have been pretty hectic here, holding down the programme, along with my other commitments. As the work on the Shark Sanctuary slowly drifts into the past other projects have stepped up to become the main focus. Right now I am juggling the Conservation Education Project, Aitutaki Lagoon Monitoring Project and the Tikioki Lagoon Aquatic Ecotrail Project, all of which have deadlines looming ominously near.

It is a fun time though, the variety is anything but mundane. The Conservation Education Project is nearing completion for the first 2 modules, with the purchasing of equipment for the schools field research kits the remaining duty.

The Aitutaki Lagoon Monitoring Project is set to launch this year, with funding support from our National Tourism Office and NZ AID to assist with the establishment costs. This means it will be a well equipped and planned project from the get go. The first expedition starts on October 7th, and we have 9 more places to fill, so check it out and pass it on to all those interested. almp.picionline.org

Another small project that received funding from the same source as ALMP is the Tikioki Lagoon Aquatic Ecotrail Project. This is a simple, short project, aimed at establishing a self guided snorkel trail in Rarotonga’s beautiful lagoon. It will be a pleasure to work on, as soon as I have time, and will involve hours and hours of snorkelling, cataloguing, videoing and photographing in the clear, warm tropical waters on our doorstep. Hard work, I know.

There is a lot of other work happening this year, the month long Rubbish Roundup in September, Lagoon day next month plus some other stuff that is on the back burner, ready to bring forward for our other new arrivals, Tiffany and Tommy, getting here in September.

 

 

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Cook Islands memories

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.

The kids welcome us to Motukitiu where they are having a family picnic

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!

Down at the fishing club with Jerry, Angelo and Ian

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.

Amanda Elzer

 

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Aitutaki turtle adventures!

Taking a couple weeks out from the usual routine of work, study, sleep to participate in the Cook Island Turtle Project seemed like the logical holiday to have. Why not head to a beautiful island, meet like-minded passionate people, and assist with gathering data on such cool species. Logical, right?

An average day consisted of waking up to the cheery Phil contacting all the local tourist companies to see if they had a vacancy for us to get a lift to one of the surrounding islands. If they didn’t, like on several occasions, you knew you had a long paddle ahead of you.  If they did, everyone had to pile into the unsavoury yet characteristic smelling convertible car to head down and load our kayaks on board one of the available vessels. This was while ducking from every overhanging branch on the road, thanks to the intended swerving and Phil’s driving skills. We would get a lift out to one of the islands, listening to the locals telling stories, some a little farfetched to entertain the gullible tourists, of how all the islands got their names. We walked the islands, grading any suitable nesting habitat. We would then take our kayaks to conduct some marine surveys. When the marine surveys were done, the snorkel surveys began.

Several days in, I began to think I had some sort of curse as I had not yet seen a turtle. Whether I was facing the wrong way at the wrong time, or whether I just got completely distracted by the overall beauty of the surrounds, I began to feel slightly dispirited. However, my curse was broken as my first sub adult green turtle came up to breath not far from my kayak. They exist!

When we were told that “Uncle Garry” was coming, it seemed a little strange that a cyclone of a category three was affectionately called an uncle? What was perfect blue calm water, turned to grey waves. What was a jovial “island mode” lifestyle now seemed to have a certain apprehensive vibe as the cyclone approached and everyone went into preparation mode. Roofs were tied down, food supplies were stocked, petrol tanks were filled and windows were taped (and our alcohol supply was abundantly replenished!). It then just became a waiting game. As work had stopped due to the weather conditions, what more was there to do then to watch movies on a laptop and consume the alcohol while listening to the wind and rain? Thankfully, the cyclone hit the island and dissipated, leaving everyone relieved and their property intact.

 

Excavation of one of the turtle nests that hatched during cyclone Garry had proven to be a very educational and somewhat smelly task. Digging out the egg chamber made me realise how tough these little hatchlings have it. One remaining hatchling had not quite made it to the surface, and while holding this little guy, kindly named Garry, it dawned on me how vulnerable these little critters are and why they have such a high attrition rate. As we buried him slightly in softer sand, ready for him to embark his journey to the water that night, you couldn’t help but wonder, would he be the one in one thousand that would make it to adulthood? The importance of the baseline data that the Cook Island Turtle Project was gathering became so clear.

The little survivor, see you in 30 years

As my time came to a close on Aitutaki, I was able to reflect on all I learnt. I thought I would share for future volunteers just a few important lessons I learnt…

  • Two minute noodles and tinned corn beef can prove to be a desirable dinner (and breakfast…and lunch).
  • Toes can get sunburnt too!
  • It is difficult to just go for an afternoon walk. The locals do not seem to understand that concept and will endeavour to convince you that they will give you a lift, even if it is 50 metres down the road to the shop.
  • Birds and planes can look very similar from a distance, I am sure it is a common mistake.
  • The smell of the wet car is refreshing in comparison to a rotten turtle egg.

Meitaki atupaka

Karissa

Sad to leave Aitutaki on the last day of the project

 

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Christmas holidays Aitutaki style

Spending Christmas and New Year as a volunteer on a turtle survey in the Cook Islands was something of a last minute decision. I fancied something different and I couldn’t have chosen better. I don’t know where to begin with all the great impressions and memories I have taken away from the experience.

Veronika and Leo collecting data on the motu

The Aitutaki lagoon is just incredible. It’s where we spent most of our time; kayaking to and from the motus (or getting a lift on the big lagoon cruise vaka if we were lucky), doing habitat surveys on the motus, checking the beaches for nests, snorkelling off the motus for underwater marine surveys as well as surface marine surveys from the kayaks. When I arrived there were 3 nests on Aitutaki, by the time I left there were 6 and one had hatched on the actual day Phil had predicted. To put it mildly; he was very pleased with himself and his victory dance may have been justified but it did go on and on and on and in the end we had to force him to stop or we would have gone mad. On rainy days there wasn’t much to do other than sit inside, wait for the rain to stop and read one of the turtle books that Phil provided to learn more about these fascinating creatures. And every now and then Maine, our landlady, would knock on the door with a platter of fresh pineapple slices, some fresh water melon or passion fruit from their garden. The Aitutaki locals were generally quite interested in what we were doing and very forthcoming with turtle lore and traditions and information about when and where they see them in the lagoon, some even going out of their way to help us. Phil must have done a great job with his presentations in the schools; he is quite the celebrity in Aitutaki and wherever we went excited kids came running up to him shouting ‘Turtle guy! Turtle guy!’.  I have a feeling there is even a secret turtle hand shake for the initiated.

Christmas in the Park (in the park)

Vaipeka dances for the other villages on Christmas Day

While counting turtles and nests generally kept us very busy, we did get some time off. We had a fun night out taking part in a pub quiz where the rowing club was raising money to send some of the kids to a vaka ama race in New Zealand. We had a great start and Phil managed to become the traditional Aitutaki dance champion (of the evening only). But it was downhill from there on and in the end we came third. Christmas and New Year were very relaxed affairs. We went to Christmas in the Park (in the church) with Maine, where we joined ‘our’ village on stage for a few Christmas carols. Then there was Christmas in the Park (in the park) where the food was incredible and the portions huge, which saved me yet another night’s cooking. And of course we went along to the traditional dance performances on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.

 

Lots of friends came to say their goodbyes at the airport with the traditional ei's

Overall it was a fantastic experience. I hope I did contribute to the work that CITP is trying to do, even if it was just a little. It is an amazing project and Phil is a terrific project leader, looking after volunteers and passionate about turtles. I learnt a lot about turtles and we had great fun. I made some great friends while I was in Aitutaki and saying goodbye was hard. Hopefully we’ll see each other again soon.

Meitaki atupaka

Veronika

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Working hard for the turtles of Aitutaki

Collecting baseline data on the turtles of Aitutaki involves a lot of hard slog. A typical day starts with a beach walk for a few hours. This might be to assess the suitability of ‘new’ un-surveyed beaches as turtle nesting habitat, or it might be re-walking beaches that have been surveyed previously and that were assessed as possible nesting beaches. In some cases we found nests and knew that they had been used by turtles. Sometimes the walk doesn’t start until later in the day, if the beaches in question are on one of the motu, or smaller more remote islets, in which case it may take an hour or two to get there. We have been fortunate that several local businesses have been prepared to sponsor our travel. The Vaka Cruise, Bishops Cruises and Aitutaki Adventures have given us lifts on several occasions to the more remote motu. The Lagoon Resort and Spa also lent us kayaks to help us get around the motu.

If turtle activity is found, then there is more work to do. Old nests are identified and may be excavated to check the hatched eggs. If recent nests are located, the top egg is found and its depth below the surface recorded. The age of all activity is estimated, whether recent or old, and the species of turtle responsible is established where possible. So far we have found evidence of green turtles currently nesting on Aitutaki.

Afternoon work typically involves marine surveys. Much of Aitutaki’s lagoon, around the main island in the north, has poor visibility and snorkelling there has been unproductive. Around the motu in the south the visibility is much better. We also keep an eye out for turtles while travelling in boats or kayaks on the lagoon and have seen a juvenile turtle close inshore to one of the motu.

Cheers

Jane (CITP volunteer)

Toughing it out on Tapuaetai 'One-foot Island'

Jane and Mitch about to record a nest on the Ootu Pensnsular

 

 

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Volunteering with the Cook Islands Turtle Project

Working as a volunteer for the Cook Islands Turtle Project in Aitutaki with Phil has been a huge learning experience for me. Upon coming to Aitutaki I had already dived up close and personal with plenty of sea turtles – greens and hawksbills – but I had no idea just how fascinating the endangered animal is. The sea turtle’s enormous migration, the preparation she takes before laying her eggs, the way she transforms salt water into fresh, the magnetite crystals in her head; all merely the tip of the ice berg as to what I’ve been learning about here over the last 4 weeks. But not only has this experience been about learning, it’s also been about teaching. We spent time up at the various schools on the island giving presentations on the sea turtle’s history, anatomy, and the conservation methods that ought to be practised in order to guard them for future generations. We also had the schools put their creativity to use – having them create posters (and even a song) as a means to promote turtle conservation.  I was surprised just how well the kids took it all in, and they certainly have been a big part in boosting the Project’s progression in regards to gaining the trust of the community. That side of the project has been educational, hilarious, and made me feel like I’m a part of a truly good cause – I also had a bit of a fan club along the way which made it all that much more enjoyable. The beach surveys were a great way to start the mornings: seeing parts of the island tourists don’t tend to see, and learning all the more about the nature and habitat of sea turtles while keeping an eye out for tracks and nests. Finding a nest was a big deal for me, seeing how the excavation process is performed was yet another part of the project that fascinated me, and felt really rewarding when I got to do an excavation myself. Beach surveys on the smaller motu’s were a lot of fun too; getting to join tourists on the Vaka or Bishop’s Cruises to get across the lagoon, and then surveying the entire coast of them in search of nests. Not exactly a hellish place, the beauty of the Cook’s really came out on the more isolated points of the lagoon. Overall I think it’s safe to say that I’ve accomplished more than I intended this year, and my time with the Cook Islands Turtle Project has really led it to end on a high note. I’ll never forget this experience and it’s sad to be leaving such a beautiful place in the South Pacific.

Cheers

Mitch

Excavation on Honeymoon

I found the eggs!

Measuring the depth of the top egg

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Shark sanctuary created, what next?

This past Wednesday saw the Minister of Marine Resources, the Hon Teina Bishop, declare all of the Cook Islands EEZ a shark sanctuary. One small statement for Minister Bishop, but a huge amount of work for PICI. This has not been an easy journey. It has taken sacrifices. But because the goal has been worthwhile, there has never been a stage when I thought we’d give up. I knew we would get there, because it is the right thing to do, and the people of the Cook Islands understand that.

The first reaction we get when we start to talk about protecting sharks is ‘you wanna do what?’ It’s a natural reaction when peoples impressions of sharks so wrapped in fear and danger. But once the issue is introduced, and the reasoning explained, people get it.

Sharks have killed people in the Cook Islands. Usually spear fishermen caught on the reef, a case of mistaken identity. But sharks are also considered pests. They steal a fisherman’s catch, nothing is more demoralizing than fighting a tuna to the side of dug out canoe, only to have it taken by a shark at the last minute. And it costs money too. Sharks take $100′s of dollars worth is lures each week.

And even through this, the local fishing community accepted that sharks should be protected, that what goes on in the pelagic longline fishery is not acceptable. Polynesians may take from the sea, but they do not waste.

So what is next for the Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary Project? Well, for a start we can have a well deserved Christmas break. The time that has been spent on this project has taken away from others such as the Conservation Education Project and the Aitutaki Lagoon Monitoring Project. But as for sharks, our focus for the next while will be making sure the regulations are implemented properly, that the nation feels proud of what they have achieved and starting some research programmes around sharks, to better understand how they interact with the both the commercial and artisanal fisheries.

Stephen Lyon – Director PICI

 

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CITP visits Vaitau Primary

On arrival to Vaitau Primary School Phil, Jane and I received a humble greeting from Ingrid, Mama Vara and a handful of their cheerful students who were playing around before school started session. After setting up the projector and getting our selves settled into the thankfully breezy classroom, the 30-odd junior school students piled in excitedly and found and fought for their seats. Albeit sitting on the floor mat at our feet or on the plastic chairs that surrounded the room, the kid’s shuffled in close and beamed up at us – and the turtle remnants we brought along to share with them. Ingrid gave them a brief talking to as to who we were and what we were here to do today, before handing it over to Phil. He thanked them all and we all introduced ourselves, and then started on the slide show he had prepared. With an encouraging amount of “Oooohs” and “Aaaaahs,” Phil began his presentation with a history of sea turtles and their cousins. It was good to see most of the class interact with us the way they did, readily attempting and answering questions… with the encouragement of Mama Vara of course. But every class has their cheekier students – posing for the camera and giving each other a bit of banter, a couple of jokers furthest away from Ingrid (and closest to us) smirked and seemed more interested in me and the turtle skull than anything. They quickly turned coat to their antics however and looked in fascination when I passed them the bleached Green sea turtle skull, some husks of turtle shell, and 3 tags that we would use for keeping track of any turtles we may encounter on our expedition. It was all passed around slowly, and now that we had everyone’s attention I could really see a lot of learning taking place in the class. Phil taught them about how endangered the different species of sea turtle are, and about the poaching and the wasteful use of their body parts in trade around the world. To counter this however, he spoke of the conservation efforts being put in around the Cook’s, and how they as a people can help reduce their risk of extinction – important traits such as recycling waste, spreading the word and learning more about what they had seen with us that day. We began to wrap the lesson up, but not before Mama Vara had the students say goodbye and thank us for the information we shared. They sung us songs in Cook Islands Maori and in English, and we all bowed our heads for a small prayer. We took our leave, packing up our equipment and getting a lot of high fives and handshakes from the students. I had a lot of fun and learned a lot more than I expected, it was really a different side to the island that few people really see, and for that I’m thankful.

Cheers

Mitch

All the kids were eager to show their turtle knowledge

 

We met lots of fun characters!

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