A volunteer study abroad program scheduled for this summer will give students the opportunity to work with, and learn about, sea turtle conservation and explore the Oaxaca Coast in Mexico.

"This will simultaneously broaden the participants' cultural perspective, help the Oaxacan people economically and give the students an opportunity to work directly with the nesting sea turtle," said Emily Taylor, a biological sciences professor. Courtesy Photo.

The Sea Turtle Rescue and Eco-cooperative Tour, hosted by Viva Study Abroad, is a Morro Bay-based company that offers education and cultural volunteer programs with an emphasis on Latin American culture, language and people.

During the tour, students will visit several businesses in Oaxaca that have adopted environmentally-stable practices.

“This will simultaneously broaden the participants’ cultural perspective, help the Oaxacan people economically and give the students an opportunity to work directly with nesting sea turtles,” said Emily Taylor, a biological sciences professor who will attend the tour this year.

Viva Study Abroad, working in conjunction with the National Mexican Turtle Research Center, which is located in Oaxaca and closely monitors the Olive Ridley sea turtle, the most abundant sea turtle species in the world.

This tour provides a unique hands-on experience with the turtles, a privilege volunteers do not normally get to enjoy. Viva Study Abroad owner and director, Dawn Feuerberg, was given special permission for this trip because of her connections with the research center.

“This is the most important nesting ground for Olive Ridley sea turtles in the world,” Feuerberg said. “No tourists are allowed there. It’s marked off and there are guards. No one is allowed on that beach without permission.”

The Olive Ridley sea turtle, as well as every other species of sea turtle, is endangered because of human interference, Taylor said. Destruction of nesting beaches, exploitation by people eating eggs and adult turtles, drowning in the nets of fish trawlers and dying from eating plastic bags mistaken for jellyfish, all play a factor in sea turtle endangerment. The Oaxaca program focuses on helping and learning about the reproductive cycles of the turtles, so they may have a better chance to repopulate.

“The students will help Mexican scientists collect data on nesting turtles, patrol beaches at night to look for turtles and deter poachers and learn firsthand about the Olive Ridley sea turtle,” Taylor said.

The 12-day trip is divided into two phases. During the first five days, students will explore the Oaxaca area and visit local eco-cooperatives, such as a facility that makes peanut butter or an iguana sanctuary. During this time, students will reside in environmentally-friendly hotels known as eco-lodges.

Feuerberg includes the exploration phase in the program because she said she wants the students to have the time to get to know the area that she herself has been traveling to for 20 years. She also wants them to learn about the sustainable practices in a place they wouldn’t necessarily expect.

Feuerberg said when killing sea turtles became illegal approximately two decades ago, the Oaxacans, who depended on turtle meat for food, were forced to find new ways to support their livelihood. The eco-cooperatives the students will be visiting on the tour are examples of the Oaxacans’ resourcefulness to survive.

The second phase will start with a training session with the Sea Turtle Conservation Project before participants begin to work and come into contact with the sea turtles. The night will be spent on an organic coffee farm in the tropical mountains.

Then, the volunteer component of the trip begins. Students will spend the last five days working with the biologists, veterinarians and full-time staff of the National Mexican Turtle Center to help revive the Olive Ridley sea turtle population. They will help protect the area from poachers, collect eggs and move them to higher ground, measure the turtles, build beetle traps (these insects eat turtle eggs) and count nests and eggs in addition to anything else the workers need help with.

“Every year is slightly different,” Feuerberg said. “It’s very cutting edge; it’s very new and not offered anywhere else. This is actually an opportunity to stay, learn and feel like you’re making a difference.”

Feuerberg said she also hopes “arribada” will occur during their trip. Arribada is an annual natural phenomena in which thousands of sea turtles simultaneously come to the shores of Oaxaca to lay their eggs sometime between the months of August and November. While last year’s group did not get to witness this event, they did interact with the turtles on the beach.

A participant of last year’s trip, biological sciences junior Shannon Gonzalez, said she was able to help some newly hatched sea turtles find their way to the ocean.

“It was an amazing experience to put a baby turtle in the ocean,” Gonzalez said. “They were so cute.”

Gonzalez found the experience very enlightening. Always an animal-lover, especially of reptiles, Gonzalez said the tour was an interesting opportunity to learn about an animal in a country she hadn’t visited in many years.

“At one point, we got to swim with the sea turtles,” Gonzalez said.

Her tour was structured similarly to this year’s, with an initial exploration phase followed by the volunteer phase. One of the eco-cooperatives she and her group visited during their exploration was a cosmetic cooperative that specialized in making cosmetics from natural ingredients and native plants. This cooperative is also scheduled for this year’s tour.

She also enjoyed learning about the local culture and the people, who she said were very friendly. She even re-learned some of the Spanish she had lost since high school, and enjoyed working with animals and seeing the exotic plant life.

And despite the heat, humidity, rain and surplus of mosquitoes, she said the trip was “super fun.”

Animal science sophomore Jeffrey Westling, who also went last year is an avid conservationist and admirer of Latin America, said his experiences made him want to visit Mexico as well.

“I learned (as I learn whenever I go to Latin America) how beautiful life is,” Westling said. “The people of Latin America have continued to floor me with their unrelenting kindness, love and humble nature when they have so little — that and how important conservation is and how beneficial it can be for a rural community like Mazunte or Escobia, where we traveled in Oaxaca.”

He, too, said interacting with the sea turtles was one of his favorite parts of the trip, and is returning this year.

“It is such an eye-opening experience which is so valuable,” Westling said.

More information can be found on the Viva Study Abroad website. The deadline to register for the tour is April 1.

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