We completed our first family volunteering experience in September 2017, helping sea turtles on Tioman Island. It was even better than we could have hoped for! But is volunteering with children difficult? What was involved? And did we make a difference? This is our story.
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The Juara Turtle Project, Tioman Island, Malaysia
We chose to volunteer with our kids at the Juara Turtle Project (JTP) because we love animals, because they are an ethical NGO, and because they are one of few places in Malaysia that accept young children for volunteer experiences. The Project focuses on education, egg protection, research and data collection, and the volunteering program was professionally managed, with many tasks we could help with.
The Project has operated as an NGO since 2006, when governmental funding for the hatchery on Tioman Island expired. Volunteers and student groups have been involved with the project since 2009, and in addition to helping sea turtles the Project is also involved in local recycling programs, helping stray animals, and coral mapping.
The location and amenities at the Juara Turtle Project
It took a bit of effort to get to Juara Bay, where JTP is located. We caught a ferry from Mersing on Peninsular Malaysia, which takes 2 hours. Then it’s a half hour taxi ride from the port on Tioman Island to Juara: straight through the middle of the island. It’s also straight UP, through mountain ranges and then down again! You could instead trek through the jungle for 2 & 1/2 hours to reach Juara Bay, but we decided not to try that.
We had a room to ourselves, and I loved that ours was named ‘Freedom’. Rooms house several staff members or volunteers, and families get a room together as a priority. It was great that we could have some privacy for the kids, so they could sleep early or nap and not be disturbed. Each room has its own bathroom but no hot water, which didn’t really matter: most days that was the last thing you wanted!
It cost us almost AUD$700 to volunteer for the week, which included a delicious, fully cooked breakfast and lunch each day, and use of their recreational equipment.
Juara Bay itself is stunningly beautiful, and is perhaps the least developed beach on the island (for now anyway). We couldn’t believe how perfect the beach was, and it was almost deserted most days. The Project’s hatchery is right on the beach, and the living area is only a few steps away. We felt extremely blessed that we got to stay and work in such an amazing location.
Our volunteering tasks and schedule
After we had settled in to our room, we had an induction about JTP and what was expected of us. Each day at 5:00pm, all staff and volunteers have a meeting to discuss the following day and allocate the tasks for it. This was great as we learnt about everything that needed to be done, and got to have a go at all the tasks throughout our week.
Juara Turtle Project is open to the public every single day, from 10am-1pm, and from 3pm-5pm. Breakfast was served at 9am, and we had to be ready to receive visitors at 10. At first I thought the 2 hour lunch break was perhaps too long, but soon realised it is necessary! It is the hottest part of the day, and there is no air-conditioning. Also with working 7 days a week every week, staff and volunteers really need down-time. If people weren’t relaxing or catching up on laundry or food supplies, they were often out snorkelling in the nearby reefs.
There are many daily jobs that enable the smooth running of the Project, and everyone works together to complete them. We all would choose one from the list each day and get to it after breakfast. These jobs were things like cleaning tables and displays, watering plants and sweeping the road. We tried all of them at some stage and Dante and Allegra helped us with most of them. They particularly enjoyed raking the hatchery all together, especially when we were expecting a nest to hatch! It was fun to check on it and wonder if we’d see some baby turtles each time.
VISITOR CENTRE tours
At least two people had to be at the Project’s base at all opening times to welcome visitors and give them a tour. We were first shown around the centre ourselves, and one of the marine biologists explained about JTP’s work and the threats to sea turtles to us. Then we were able to transfer the information to other visitors to the Project. We did this the first time with an experienced volunteer to gain confidence. I really enjoyed talking with visitors, and again Dante and Allegra often came along to help!
Patrols of the beach to look for any tracks from a nesting turtle mother happen twice a night, at different times depending on the tide. I did one around midnight on our first night, and Anthony did the early morning patrol. We both went with others the first time to learn the trail and how to patrol without disturbing any wildlife.
Ant really enjoyed the early morning walks along the beach, so he volunteered for that patrol most mornings of our stay. It was nice how you could request the jobs you liked, and especially as that one wasn’t so popular (4 or 5 am wake up call!) it worked well.
The other daily patrol is a boat patrol out to a small beach about 20 minutes from Juara Bay. The beach itself has no human interference, but natural predators like crabs and monitor lizards are good at finding turtle nests and eating the eggs. As only 2 of the 4 species of sea turtle return to Tioman Island now, JTP relocates nests from that beach to their hatchery, to give them the best chance of surviving. A common concern about this practice is whether the mother will be able to find her babies after moving them or not. As turtle mothers only ever come to shore to lay their eggs, baby turtles never meet their mums. Once they hatch they crawl to the water and swim out to sea.
I did the boat patrol several times and really enjoyed it. It was wonderful to see more of the island and the clear waters, and to look for any tracks on the beach from afar. One of the patrols (that I wasn’t on) found a nest on that beach during our week, which was very exciting!
Small children are not allowed to go on the boat patrol for safety reasons, much to Dante’s disappointment. Anyone wanting to do the boat patrol has to complete a short swimming test, also to ensure everyone’s safety.
Every day we also had a larger group task or activities to do together. These were jobs like a beach clean-up, collecting and squashing cans for recycling, and discussing sea turtles or coral. Some days it included a fun team-building activity like cooking and hiking to a waterfall. And on Fridays, the only day every week, there was no extra activity, so everyone could have a bit of a break.
The beach clean-up was the only task that Dante and Allegra really didn’t enjoy. It was incredibly hot even though it was only 10am, and we were out in the full sun. I got them to find some shade while I continued on for awhile, but then had to take them back as it was just too much for them.
Other jobs we could volunteer to do
Sometimes when it was quiet in the afternoons, we sat together to make jewellery that is sold at the Project for souvenirs. I liked doing that together as we got to chat and laugh as well as get creative.
Another day we sanded and repainted wooden signs that record sponsor’s names on nests in the hatchery. I think the JTP staff thought our kids would enjoy that, but they didn’t really! Allegra helped briefly but then thought playing with Dante was a better idea.
Sometimes there are extra activities in the community too. JTP is associated with another project to help the many stray cats and dogs on Tioman Island, and there was a new premise being built for that project when we were there. Anthony went to help shovelling sand for the builders on a couple of afternoons.
And of course, helping the sea turtles!
The main reason for JTP and for all of us being there was to help turtles. They make no promises that volunteers will get to see some, but as we went in the nesting season it was fairly likely that we would.
releasing some late hatchlings
If hatchlings emerge or a nest of eggs is discovered, then all volunteers are able to observe and assist. We were blessed to have both experiences during our week! One nest had hatched before we arrived, and on the first night of our stay a couple of late turtles emerged from it. Other volunteers excitedly awoke us to go and see them being released into the water. Dante and Allegra watched bleary-eyed as the tiny turtles scurried away!
excavating a turtle nest
A few days later that nesting site was excavated, which we got to help with. The sites are dug up to record how many eggs hatched and try to determine the reasons why the rest didn’t. Most adult volunteers, including Anthony and I, had a turn at digging in the hole to search for turtles and eggshells.
During the excavation 6 babies were found alive, and they were released into the ocean soon afterwards. As those babies were not strong enough to climb out of the deep nest themselves, they had a fairly low chance of survival. But at least they had a chance hey?
Our kids loved watching those baby turtles, and were allowed to touch them very carefully for a minute. Dante got to hold one briefly too, but Allegra was a bit young for that. They really loved getting to see them up close and keeping an eye on them until the excavation was finished. We then took them closer to the water and watched them crawl over the sand and swim away.
We also counted the eggshells and helped to sort the unhatched eggs into their approximate stages of development. Allegra didn’t like the smell of this job but Dante helped us complete it. It was interesting to hear JTP’s manager Izzati explain why they didn’t hatch or grow to full term.
transferring a nest of eggs to the hatchery
One morning a nest of over 130 eggs was discovered on the boat patrol, and the eggs were immediately transported to the Project’s hatchery. They are carefully packed inside a foam crate along with sand from the original nesting site, as it contains some of the mother turtle’s fluids.
At the hatchery a circular hole is dug to the exact depth of the original nest. It is placed in the full sun, partial sun or shade also to replicate the original nesting site. Then the eggs are very carefully removed and placed in the new nest by a staff member.
Volunteers could help remove the eggs from the crate and put them close to Beto, who created the new nest. We had to make sure they were not squashed by our hands or rotated at all, so we only allowed Dante and Allegra to touch them briefly, not transfer them. Allegra really wanted to help though, so she held my arm as I picked up the eggs.
releasing a full nest of hatchlings into the water
This actually happened the day after we finished up! We knew a nest was going to hatch soon and we were hoping to see it, but it still hadn’t at the end of our week. Luckily we were only staying at the other end of Juara Bay for a few nights, and were still in touch with our friends at JTP. They let us know when the babies emerged and we hurried back to see them! It was wonderful to return and witness a whole nest of hatchlings scurrying into the water.
other turtle activities
During our stay an adolescent turtle was found dead on the island. Izzati performed an autopsy on it to determine and record the cause of death. We could have watched that but chose not to, as we didn’t think our kids were old enough to witness it. Unfortunately dead turtles are not uncommon, and it’s usually due to plastic and/or oil ingestion, or occasionally injury from boats.
So was it difficult volunteering with children?
We had a fair bit to help with each day at JTP, and often Dante and Allegra could help us, but sometimes they couldn’t or didn’t want to. After the first few days they had made friends with all the other staff and volunteers, and they were happy to chat or play with them if Ant or I was busy with a task. And at the Project there were balls and board games to play with and kittens to admire, which kept them entertained too.
In the lunch break they looked forward to having our attention, and after we ate we would take them for a swim in the sea. It was lovely to have enough time to connect with them then, and we enjoyed cooling off too. But it was also exhausting! Not having much of a break ourselves got very tiring, and towards the end our week we couldn’t manage the swim every day. Sometimes we had a quick dip before breakfast instead though, and even one morning Dante and I got up early enough to watch the magnificent sunrise over Juara Bay. It was a beautiful morning and it was a very special time with him, so I’m glad I made the effort.
Allegra still needed a daily nap while we were there, so I would take her to our room and stay close-by while she slept. One afternoon I was so tired that I napped with her and missed the cooking experience! I knew they weren’t relying on me so I didn’t stress about it though. The staff were very understanding of our needs and always allowed us to care for ourselves and our children as a priority.
If our kids were older, the experience probably would have been easier. They may have been able to help with more tasks, and we wouldn’t have had to worry about naps. Being little they also need dinner early, so straight after the daily meeting we would walk to the café strip to find some food. The other volunteers and staff would go to a nightly volleyball match with some locals before dinner, and they usually ate together afterwards. Taking care of young kids meant missing out on that part of JTP life, but there’s always compromises. We were there to help as a family and that was always our priority. And we still had a lot of fun together, walking along the beach after dinner, swimming whenever we could, and helping at the Project during the day.
We had hoped another family would be volunteering at the same time we were there, which may have also made it easier. Many families do volunteer at JTP, but no others were that week. Some friend’s children had a wonderful time with other kids throughout their volunteering experience, and perhaps would’ve been nice for Dante and Allegra to meet some other kids too. But this is all speculation; all experiences are different. It might not have been easier with other children there, or they might not have gotten along! Our kids did make friends with the other adults, and they had a really nice time together. The JTP staff and volunteers even came to celebrate Dante’s birthday with us after we had left the Project. That is friendship, and Allegra and Dante still talk about their friends from JTP.
Overall the experience was wonderful, and we never felt out-of-place being the only family there. Everyone was welcoming and understanding, and keen to ensure we were included in all the activities. Dante and Allegra missed us sometimes, and with our thoughts always with them as well as the work, it was tiring for Anthony and I. We couldn’t have done it for much longer at our current fitness levels, and we were ready to relax and spend more time with our kids again anyway. We were pleased to have achieved what we did though, and were very grateful to have the experience alongside our children.
And finally, did we make a difference? Is volunteering with children worthwhile?
Short answer: yes, I really think so!
Did it matter to the turtles that hatched that week that our family was there? Of course not. Did it help the staff of JTP to have two parents and two small children volunteering? Not specifically I imagine. Two single adults would have probably been more productive than us! But we were still useful and did everything we could, and the bonus is our children got to be with us, helping and learning too.
I know we have made a difference in our own lives from the experience. Ant and I understand much more about sea conservation and running a non-profit project. We got to see first-hand the effects of pollution and loss of habitat on sea creatures, and to witness how experts help wildlife with minimal interference. We learnt directly from marine biologists and research students, and got to apply our new knowledge to help others understand more too. And we got to experience life in an unspoilt part of an island, which we now even more passionately want to protect for the future.
Though sometimes the week was tiring, perhaps the real answer lies in how we feel about it months later. We have been travelling non-stop since September and have visited many amazing places, yet our time at JTP remains the highlight of our trip. The opportunity to do meaningful work and connect with others in a genuine way was the best experience for Anthony and me, without a doubt. We are keen to do more volunteering as we continue our travels, but will take on shorter experiences while our kids are this age. I think this is a difference that counts, as we know our capabilities and know we want to continue to help where we can.
And what about Dante and Allegra? They were able to have a real experience with animals that is based on assisting them, not profiting from them. They had opportunities to help with many tasks and understand that they are related to helping sea creatures too. They got to see their parents learning and helping, and working in a new situation with people from all over their world. They also made friends and enjoyed talking and playing with other adults, and they got to hang out with a group of people committed to improving the state of the world. All of these things rub off on them and shape their growing personalities, so who knows at this point how much impact it will have on them?
I want to continue to make a difference from our time at the Juara Turtle project too, by raising awareness of their work and inspiring you to get involved! Whatever your circumstances, there is always a way to give to a cause you are passionate about. You don’t have to commit to volunteering to help them either; just supporting an ethical organisation with your visit or purchasing from them provides some much-needed funding. So please, seek out the projects that are committed to improving the world, know that you have something to give, and go for it!
Juara Turtle Project contact details and further info:
If you’re interested in volunteering with or visiting JTP, check out their website for all the details: http://www.juaraturtleproject.com/
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