Dr. Phyllis Ngai
Alumni Lily Piecora Dances with Turtles in the Yucatan
In July 2014 I took off for the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico for a Sea Turtle conservation internship with the Cozumel Sea Turtle Salvation Project. The internship was on the small island called Cozumel, an extremely well-known tourist spot in the area. Cozumel has a small local population that survives on the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit there each year. Cozumel is a must stop for cruise ships. While this is great for the local economy, cruise ships are a huge source of pollution, which takes a serious toll on the ecosystems, water quality and, specifically for my work, sea turtle populations.
Sea turtles, as well as their eggs, used to be an important and treasured food source for the people of the Yucatan. Today it is illegal to kill the sea turtles for food, but their population numbers are still struggling and poaching can still be a major issue. My time on the island was spent working with the local government and a team to help monitor these turtles. We had various shifts. At night we monitored for female turtles, who can weigh up to 500 pounds, marking nests with GPS coordinates. This shift lasted until 5 am. In the afternoon there was turtle hatching and egg counting to be done. In the heat of the day we slowly uncovered nests of mostly green turtles, each containing around 100-150 eggs.
On a good afternoon we would uncover a nest full of 150 live, sleepy baby turtles, but most days we would uncover 5-7 nests full of unformed embryos or rotting infant turtles; nothing has ever smelled so bad or been as sad. With rising sea temperatures, the nests cannot withstand the humidity under the sand, or are sometimes penetrated by plants thriving in the higher temperatures. Sea turtles’ natural survival rate has always been poor, but it continues to worsen, largely as a result of climate change. Last year (2013) Cozumel marked 5,263 nests, 4,825 were Green turtle nests and 438 Loggerhead nests. This year (2014) numbers are thousands behind where they have been in previous years at this point, but researchers aren’t sure what is causing the low number of turtles to return to Cozumel.
My work with the sea turtles and traveling was so inspiring I decided I wanted more of my education to be in the field. So this coming December I will be leaving for Thailand to study abroad in sustainable agriculture with the University of Montana study abroad course, Sustainable Agriculture in Thailand, led by Professor Josh Slotnik. After completing the course, I plan on traveling through nearby areas in Southeast Asia, taking varies courses in different forms of agriculture and green building as well as volunteering for a variety of projects related to health issues and social justice. I hope to return with a new sense of understanding and mindfulness in my studies and future work. To follow my SE Asia adventures starting January 1st, please see my blog.
Image Above: Lily’s Post Graduation Experience in Mexico.