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.
Sad to leave Aitutaki on the last day of the project