Do we really want to volunteer?


I have met volunteers from all walks of life while managing volunteer-based community and conservation projects for the past few years. Everyone has something to offer, bringing different invaluable skills and experiences, providing manpower, coming up with suggestions and recommendations to solve problems, etc. It is about having a wonderful volunteering experiences, not just to share and contribute but also to gain insights and experiences working with the community in conservation.

Putting fun aside, there were also times when having volunteers is challenging. I often asked volunteers the reason(s) they volunteer. Volunteers who did their research about the projects before signing up had a better idea of what they would be doing at the project. But, there were also those who came because they or their parents thought volunteering would look good on their CVs, they just wanted to volunteer but were not keen on doing much, they had some time while travelling and did not know what to do or where else to go, they wanted to help turtles but did not know it involves patrolling on the beach at night, etc. Then I wonder, why would they sign up to something without knowing what they were signing up for?

I am writing this as I think that there are a few things people who plan or want to volunteer should know before signing up for it. This is so that projects and volunteers can meet each other’s expectations.

First of all, ask ourselves why do we want to volunteer and what do we want to gain?

This is important because it helps us to know what to look for while searching for projects and decide whether or not a project is suitable. For example, if we dislike children, we should not volunteer for a project that requires us to spend time every day with children. Not only will we struggle to work with children, the children also sense it that we don’t like hanging out with them. The reason we want to volunteer will be our motivation that decides how much (more) we want to be involved while volunteering. If we are there just to pass time, that is what we will do. However, if we want to learn about something, we will make sure we utilise our time there to gain those skills.

How much budget do we have? How long can we volunteer?

Look for projects that are within our budget. Anything less than one week is probably not sufficient to learn or contribute much, especially when it involves work that needs specific skills. Most work that the projects carry out require a certain level of skills and experiences, which can be acquired through training (with time). Unless we have the skills and experiences, we need to allow us some time to go through the training and practice. For example, it is overly ambitious to think that we could get certified as an open water diver and do dive surveys in one week period, even if the project tells you otherwise. Some people are natural divers but some become one with experience, plus it requires training to do surveys for research. Understanding this means we are able to tell if we have the skills and experiences to volunteer for a certain project, or we probably need to pick up the necessary skills first and if not, stay longer.

How much time are we willing to spend on volunteering every day?

Not many people put much thought about it. At most projects, it is a full working day every day. However, if we have in mind, from the beginning, that we only want to volunteer half a day and have the rest of the day free to explore the area, then look for a project that gives us the flexibility to do so. Some projects have more rigid schedule that requires volunteers to follow through a fixed itinerary. Find out as early as possible whether or not certain arrangement can be made.

Once we know what we want, do the homework!! There is no shortcut to have a good volunteering experience. In most cases, volunteers do not have a pleasant experience because the project has not met up to their expectations. At the same time, projects also feel the pinch as they have to put up with unhappy volunteers. This could happen because volunteers do not receive full information about a project, finds out later that what is happening on ground is far from what it is on the brochure/website or they do not take the effort to find out more about the project. Be more cautious of anything that sounds too good to be true. If we are booking through agents, make sure we get the right information. I personally prefer to get in touch with the project I am interested to volunteer with, rather than booking through an agent. Look online, find out more about the project and read up reviews by past volunteers (if any). Project’s website only explains briefly what they do and agents probably tell us what we want to hear but it is from volunteers’ reviews that we know more about the day-to-day work and living conditions. Every volunteer has his/her standards so be smart in gauging the reviews.

Good projects tend to have certain requirements when looking for volunteers. Be honest. For instance, if we are not swimmers, don’t say that we can swim. This is because for projects that do snorkel surveys, instead of us helping them in the surveys, they have to constantly look out for us and make sure we don’t drown. Projects have risk assessments and safety measurements but it is also our responsibilities to inform them about our health conditions so that they can take appropriate measures when necessary. Not all projects have good or any medical facilities in proximity.

All of this is essential, if we are serious about volunteering. Take the initiative to get in touch with the project before arrival to find out if there is anything else we should know or prepare. Every project differs, some are organised and some not, which is why we should take the time to look for projects where we can share experiences and learn new skills. Lastly, having the right attitude is utmost important while volunteering. Volunteer because we want to help. Having say that, Happy Volunteering!!


Sea Turtle Volunteer Project with SEATRU

Finally! Finally reached Chagar Hutang Beach, where SEATRU project is stationed at. I have wanted to volunteer for SEATRU since I was in the university but the slots were always fully booked. Working on a volunteering project myself, I know how hard it is to take one week off. Thankfully, Dr. Juanita could slot me in for less than one week. I wanted to go before October, together with the other volunteers. However, work didn’t allow me to do so. In the end I had to settle for just 3 days in October. Short but a fantastic experience!

No entry sign at the turtle sanctuary

It rained on the day I was supposed to get to Redang from Perhentian. Although the boat was delayed, luckily it didn’t deter my journey. I reached Laguna before noon, even managed to grab some food before meeting Mahadi at 1pm. Mizi, another staff came on a small boat to pick us up. It was quite a scenic boat ride to Chagar Hutang Beach. Just when we were about to reach, I spotted a dolphin! Awesome!! The beach looked isolated. Eric, the RA, briefed me on their work, rules and regulations. Short and informal but informative! It didn’t take long to know the place inside out – kitchen, toilet, accommodation, turtle gallery, etc. The station is very basic but I like it!

Chagar Hutang Beach

The main activities were night patrol and day nest check. Everyone was involved for the 8pm-12am night patrol whereas the ones from 12am-3am and 3am-6am were done in shift. The nesting beach is 350m, thus only an hourly patrol was required. There was a rule of no lights after 8pm to save electricity. During the first two nights, a turtle came up but didn’t nest. When I was doing the patrol, it felt good to know that I haven’t forgotten all my knowledge and field skills! It also reminded me of how relaxing night patrols were at Bubbles and SEATRU compared to the 5 miles patrol at Tortuguero. It was nice though to have time to watch movies, read a book and chat with the staff! Ever since at Perhentian, I have never watched more than a movie per night and here I was, watching 3 movies straight off until 3am! The free time you have doing turtle work…I miss that! On my last night there, a female turtle came up and laid 76 eggs! I was always told to keep the volume down around turtles but the turtle didn’t seem to be disturbed by the loud voices. It also surprised me that it was alright to use yellow light. All the turtle projects that I have been to only use red light. Things I learn volunteering at different projects really exposed me to different insights!

A turtle camouflaging its nest!

Turtle tracks on the beach!

The day nests check starts at 7am. Each shift lasted for 2 hours. As it was end of the nesting season, nest check was done once a day. The first day, I just followed them around and recorded the data. It was exciting to see hatchlings again! Gosh, I do miss them! On the second day, I was just randomly walking on the beach and checking the nests while following a few hermit crabs. I noticed one nest full of ants. Later in the afternoon, I told Mizi and he excavated the nest. We relocated the newly hatched babies and unhatched eggs. It was sad to see them being attacked by ants! Although 6 didn’t survive, we managed to save the rest! Every night, we would release the hatchlings into the sea (fingers crossed that they were not eaten by sharks!)

Nests marked with a stick and covered with mesh nets to prevent predators from eating the eggs (top left); Eric (top right); Mizi (bottom left); Mann (bottom right)

Ants attack!

Relocated to a new site

Released the hatchlings to begin their life journey…

There were other recreational activities. I went snorkelling on my own. The first day was almost impossible to swim out due to the big waves so I ended up sunbathing by the beach. The second day was much better. It was a sunny day and the sea was calm. However, before I got into the water, I already saw many jellyfish being washed ashore. To snorkel among them were like walking into a minefield. I only snorkelled a while and decided to get out. While I was getting out, a baby black tip reef shark swam around me! Surprised to see one so near the beach but looking at the fact that hatchlings that leave the beach serve as food to sharks, it’s not surprising to have a few sharks waiting near the beach. I spent a lot of time taking photos of hermit crabs! They were everywhere on the beach! Cute little things except that they are predators to hatchlings too!

Enjoyed sunbathing on the isolated beach!

Cute little hermit crab that certainly took its sweet time to come out of the shell!

I also went hiking with Mizi to Turtle Rock. Mizi brought me to 5 view points. The scenery was amazing! From the last stop, we could see the nesting beach and nice sunset! Due to time constraint, I didn’t trek to the famous prawn spa. I also saw many other wildlife there apart from turtles, such as macaques, mouse deers (kancil), monitor lizards, mangrove snakes, geckos…etc!

Breathtaking view from one of the view points!

Watched sunset from above!

It was a memorable and relaxing experience volunteering with SEATRU. Although I work on an island as well but I rarely have the time to just relax and chill. I gotta say being able to grab a book, lie down in a hammock and fall asleep eventually was an awesome feeling! In spite of the mosquito bites, the nature has its way to soothe my feeling – the sound of the waves hitting against the shore and the starry sky at night. For once, I really had my personal space and some privacy to not think about work. I felt reluctant to leave when time was up. I wished I had stayed longer. I would definitely go back there to volunteer again in the future!

My favourite hammock where I spent every afternoon reading and having a nap there!