“Sea turtles are the sentinel of the sea, they are an indication of the ecological status of the ocean,” says Mike Olendo, a marine scientist.
Mike is the Marine Programme Coordinator at World Wide Fund for Nature. Sea turtles are his pet subject, and today, he will help us understand their significance in the marine ecosystem.
“My job entails coming up with deliberate actions and strategies that protect and conserve marine ecosystems through sea turtles monitoring, creating awareness in communities and working with key organisations to conserve marine life.
“My work also includes the promotion of sustainable fisheries by strengthening grassroots resource management through research to understand trends in fisheries and how best to manage resources, support the development of conducive policies (at national and county level) and enhance benefits within the fish value chain,” he says.
Mike grew up at the Coast, so the ocean was always part of his life. Years later when he joined the university to study Environmental Science, he knew the waters would be his area of specialisation.
“I have always been drawn to large bodies of water. I find them mysterious, strange and yet familiar. When I was young, I would skip classes just to go swim,” he says.
When he started to understand the waters and its constituents at a deeper level while in the university, he discovered sea turtles, which, to him, signified the perfect blend of passion and quest for knowledge in an environment that he loves.
“Sea turtles are esoteric and utilise the sea, and coastal habitats. It was natural for me to be drawn to understand them: what brings them back to land to nest, the cultural practices and myths around them and why they are endangered,” he explains.
He works with local communities and turtle conservation groups (TCGs) to protect the endangered sea turtles.
What is the importance of sea turtles to the ecosystem and why do you and your organisation protect them so much?
Sea turtles provide a good representation of the health of their local ecosystems. They play an ecological role in the marine environment as consumers, prey and competitors.
A lot can be learned about the condition of the marine environment by looking at sea turtles (they play host to parasites and pathogens and act as substrates for marine surface engineers as well as nutrient transporters).
They have existed for more than 100 million years, and they travel throughout the world’s oceans and harness the ocean’s entire ecosystem from the beaches to ocean basins. At the moment, sea turtles are struggling to survive because they are a food source, they are slow to mature, their life cycle is treacherous, and there is a lot of disturbance on their natural habitat due to human invasion, technology and change.
What does a typical work day for you involve?
Turtle conservation work is very diverse. It ranges from patrolling beaches to holding community meetings, to carrying out formal and informal training sessions with youth, fisher folk, peer organisations and government agencies, including enforcement and security agencies. The focus ranges from general awareness, turtle biology and life cycle, threats, nest verification and monitoring, which is round the clock.
There are two types of patrols: We (TCG members (youth, fisher folk, peer organisations) and government agencies carry out early morning beach patrols daily to check for new nests, (in case a turtle came to nest the previous night) and monitor the nests that already exist to see that they have not been predated on or poached. When we find a nest during the morning patrol, we determine if it is safe to be left as it is or if there is need to move it to a safer place, what we call translocation. Then we have night patrols which we do when we expect that a sea turtle will come to nest. If we succeed to find a nesting female, we let her finish laying then mark her with a tag that has a unique identification number. This helps us to estimate the number of nesting females and also track how far the turtles travel.
In addition, we carry out community awareness meetings. We also do specialised training sessions to build capacity of members of coastal communities to carry out sea turtle conservation activities. During these activities we gather information that tells us about the status of sea turtles and helps infer the conservation and management measures that we need to put in place.
What sub-types of sea turtles exist?
All turtles live in water. There are fresh water turtles (terrapins) and sea turtles. The main difference comes from the different environments they live in and how they utilise their environment. There are seven species of turtles in the world, and five out of the seven are found in Kenyan waters.
What is the greatest challenge that comes with your job?
Getting people to understand that taking care of nature means safeguarding our lives, maintaining our quality of life and continued existence in our blue planet.
The critical challenge is maintaining the balance between extraction, use, and protection and conservation, sustainable use of nature in its entirety, while showing the interconnectedness, that we are all part of nature. The bane of our times is how we balance the effects and impacts of climate variability, economic development, livelihoods – all these is centred on people and their behaviour.
What are the best courses for those that are interested in a career like this?
Natural resource management, fisheries management, marine biology and aquatic ecology. Other additional skills include community mobilisation and development, communication skills, good interpersonal skills, determination, swimming and scuba diving, humility and passion for nature. Knowledge in fisheries ecology, coral reef and resource management. Research experience and interest is also important.
What do you like most about your job and why?
Making a positive difference for nature, transforming lives that depend on nature and recruiting, as well as guiding, the next batch of environmental envoys. This involves passing the baton of nurturing the passion and talent required to care for nature to the next generation.