La Coronilla, the town where Karumbe is stationed, is nothing to write home about. There isn't really even what you would call a main street, just a couple houses on small plots and a handful of corner markets. But the location is ideal, halfway between Punta del Diablo and Chuy on the border with Brazil. There is a huge stretch of beach the goes on for miles and is broken intermittently with rocky outcroppings that turtles swim thousands of kilometers from the Caribbean to find just to munch on tasty algae. The base camp where we stayed wasn't what you would call luxury, but it had everything you needed...a sink, some water, a toilet out back, some wood slat walls to mostly protect from the elements...but not mosquitoes, a camp stove and a big table to share our meals. Out front there is a visitor center of sorts and a small gift shop selling t-shirts and trinket things with turtles on them. There are displays explaining the life cycle of a turtle, the dangers that they face (pretty much all human caused), the different species that make a yearly pilgrimage to the Uruguay coast and a series of pools where we keep the turtles that are going through rehabilitation.
I wasn't entirely sure what I would be doing when I got there. The information they sent me prior to my arrival said something about working with animals in rehab and capturing turtles in nets and tagging them. It also said something about being in decent physical condition to walk the beach for hours. I got there at the end of January and had the interesting challenge of trying to fit into a group that was already established. There were maybe 18 people all together, 2 of which were coordinators and 2 other locals...aside from that it was a group of volunteers who had all been working together for quite some time and didn't seem to interested in meeting another person. I showed up on a day where they were planning on doing a liberation, so a whole crowd of people came to see the turtle get measured and weighed. In the end they couldn't let her go because the weather wasn't ideal. For a turtle just coming out of rehab you don't want the waves to be too strong...and unfortunately the break was looking a bit fierce.
What is going on? Who are all these people? Where do I put my stuff? What should I be doing? Where is the bathroom? How can I help? What does that mean? What is your name? Where are you from? Why are you here? I spent me first couple days pretty much wandering around in a creepy way behind people who knew what they were doing and asking a lot of questions. No one really thought to explain to me what was going on, how things worked and what was expected of me. I suppose they all kind of forgot that I was new and didn't have the slightest clue what was going on. Eventually I started to pick up the pattern, every night at dinner (which was always at some ungodly hour near midnight) Gabi and Dani, the two coordinators, would put up a board with everyones tasks for the following day. It would say what we would be doing as a group: Avistamentos (turtle sighting and counting), Censo (walking the beach looking for dead animals), Campo (being in the field to try to capture turtles), Centro (staying at base and working in the visitor center), Rehabilitacion (working with the turtles in rehab), or Libre (free day for people that had worked their 7 days in a row). Aside from that there was the daily tasks of making lunch and dinner for the whole crew (something that was familiar from my time in natales except this time there was no supermarket to go to and much less equipment in the kitchen), cleaning the bathroom and running errands in town.
I was slowly starting to break into some of the group, a nice couple from the US, an American girl who grew up in the middle east, a quiet guy from Brazil, the local park ranger that just liked to hang out with us all the time and drink mate, and of course the 2 coordinators. But soon enough the whole group started leaving, 1 girl here, another girl the next day, 2 girls in the morning, the couple in the afternoon, 5 that came as a pack together in the evening...and then it was just me, 2 Brazilian guys, the 2 coordinators and the 2 locals. The next day new people started coming and before long we had a great new, international group; with people representing the USA, South Africa, Russia, Australia, Chile, Brazil, Spain and Uruguay. It was like my time there was actually starting and the first couple days were some strange transition. I was able to participate more in the work, things were getting explained to me, the people were friendly...it was looking up.
We had a few turtles in rehab. One pretty big one named La Bamba who had been there for over a month, Guri, a little thing that was pretty weak, Jueves, who was missing a piece of her shell, and escobar. La Bamba and Guri required a bit more care. Neither of them could eat on their own and needed help. When I arrived, there was a veterinary student who got nicknamed Dr. Ken who was predominately in charge of the turtle rehab. He was in his last year of vet school, hence the name Dr. and apparently the group of girls who started the volunteer term with him thought he looked like Ken, barbie's boyfriend. The name stuck. He was a nice guy, originally from Brazil and spoke Spanish with that heavy Brazilian accent. He knew what he was talking about and I liked tagging along learning about what he was doing for the turtles in rehab. I got to help preparing their special diet and feeding them while he explained what was going on with them. It made my heart break to see these critters so weak. We were doing everything we could, but they just didn't seem to get stronger. We would put Guri in the tank and she was so weak she couldn't breathe without help, she had issues with float ability, eating, breathing...it was hard to watch her, and we looked every day for signs of improvement. Eventually Dr. Ken finished his term and went home, we were trusted to the care of the turtles in rehab and given his direction on how to move forward. Escobar looked good, and was getting stronger by the day, so we were able to let him go. Jueves seemed to be strong and we were hoping to liberate her soon, but we lost her and guri on the same day after an excessively hot day. We had a quick visit from a vet from Montevideo, and she came to take La Bamba to the facility there. It was a happy and sad day when La Bamba left, I had gotten used to seeing her around and was hoping that I would get to be there they day that she got strong enough to go back to the ocean...but since there was nothing else we could do in the basic facility we had on the beach, it made sense for them to take her to the city.
But life in Karumbe wasn't just rehabilitation.There was liberation too! It's a big celebration with the town and tourists and kids all coming to be a part. Karumbe is actively involved with the kids in the community and preparing for Carnaval was part of the job as well. But the kids know Karumbe because of the turtles, it gives them a chance to get up close, and maybe if they are lucky, they get to touch one. It was wonderful to watch the faces of the little kids when the turtles would come up for air and scamper around from pool to pool looking at the turtles inside and asking all kinds of questions. But when liberation time came they would sit in a half-circle and patiently watch as the turtle was measured, weighed, skin samples were taken, and tagged. Then came the tradition...every turtle has to be set free with a song and dance...the chucho song. Man this thing was so catchy, it would get stuck in your head for days! Whenever I found myself walking down the beach, cleaning tanks, doing dishes, cooking food, there it was. I can't really even say it was a song, it was more like naming animals to a tune. It went a little something like this:
Yo soy un chucho, una tonina, un agua viva, y un tiburon
Yo soy in lobo, una tortuga, un pes escado, y un gaviotin!
I was lucky enough to do 2 different captures, sightings and censo as well. We had 14 healthy turtles tagged and released, celebrated Karumbe's 13th birthday, started making preparations for Carnaval, and lost 2 turtles. We had a massive electrical storm that lit the clouds with flashes of lightening, sweltering hot days where water from the hose was too hot to touch, cool nights wrapped up and reading in a hammock, cooking class with our park ranger Ivan who was formerly a chef, and lost of time to sit around shoot the breeze and while Chloe and/or Ivan sung and played the guitar.
A few days before the end of my time there my friend Angela showed up. I was so proud of her making it all the way to this podunk town in the middle of nowhere all by herself. I saw her walking up the road with her bright green backpack and it felt strangely like we were just saying hi after a couple days of not being in touch. We unloaded her bag, introduced her to the group and just like that she was part of the Karumbe family. Everyone was crammed in around the communal table eating dinner, passing plates, drinks, salt. There was a mismatch of languages, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and everyone trying to talk to each other. After the plates were cleared Angela and I headed down to the beach to watch the electrical storm overhead. She was quickly integrated into the rhythm of things and before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to the turtles, the group and the beach.
The night before I left we sat around and had a family style dinner. You are expected to say a couple words to everyone before you go and they give you a certificate stating you completed your work there. What could I possibly say about this experience. It was short as far as my other volunteer experiences have gone, only 10 days, but it was so varied. I still can't believe that I was trusted to care for these amazing creatures. I was expecting to play a back up role, not really thinking that I would be feeding, holding and cleaning up after them. When things were slow I would sit there and watch them swim in their tanks, and take note of the amazing color and pattern of their shells and plate pattern on their faces. I learned that the markings on their faces are like our fingerprints...each one is specific to that one turtle. They had their personalities too, and there was something so incredible about letting them go and seeing their mad dash to get back to the ocean. To know that one we nursed back to health was now strong enough to go on its own...this was rewarding in ways I had never imagined. There was that sinking sadness when one didn't make it. What happened? What else could I have done? There was frustration and anger when a necropsy in the field told you that, yes, this turtle died because of human recklessness and the plastic lodged in it's throat and stomach was all the proof you needed. It reminded me of how I felt when I watched the fire in Torres del Paine, and had to battle feelings of anger and despair directed at the human species. Why are we so selfish? Why don't we care more about how we effect this planet and each other? But then there was the noble job of education. This little spot on the coast of Urugauy was drawing in volunteers from all over the world who are now actively spreading awareness about the sea turtle. This basic center is educating a community about the treasures that live in its waters and explaining how every single one of us can make a difference for this beautiful species. I remember meeting people from Argentina and Uruguay before I got to Karumbe and telling them that I was going to volunteer with sea turtles...and the looks of disbelief, "there are not sea turtles in Uruguay" they told me. They had no idea that there are in fact hundreds of turtles and a variety of species that spend the summers feeding there. Karumbe and a team of international volunteers are doing the job of spreading the word: yes there are turtles here, they are amazing, they call this place home, and you can do something to make sure they can keep coming back.
So what do you say to that? Thank you? That doesn't even seem like enough. I have been so surprised and inspired by every element of the work they do. I feel blessed to have been accepted to be a part of the team and this process. I will never forget the feeling of holding a healthy turtle in my hands as she wriggled for her freedom and as the smooth skin rises and falls with her breath sandwiched in a perfect shell as she slowly calms down. I flinched with the turtle when I was trusted to clean her shell of muscles and barnacles and saw that they had buried themselves between the plates and had grown roots down to the bone. "I'm sorry sweet thing, I know this must hurt, but it will be better in the end." I felt the fight when I took a sample of skin, and the modesty of trying to hide her tail when it was time to measure it...and those little moments are what bonded me to them. But the pattern on the faces and those deep dark eyes that stared right back at me...I think that is what touched me most. You look like a dinosaur, and came soooo far just to end up right here right here, right now. I came a long way as well, and I don't want to hurt you...I just want to learn about you, and learn about me too.