For most people, GPS provides the map they use while driving. For Noam Raffel, 30, the term has a different significance. Last spring, he traveled to a remote beach in Guyana, in South America, to put GPS units on large sea turtles.
Raffel, a Washington resident, is a geospatial scientist for an environmental consultancy. A nature and geography lover, he incorporates his love of travel and exploring different cultures into his work.
Tell us a little bit about your involvement with the turtles.
I work for a company that does environmental impact assessments for big infrastructure projects. And often those projects trigger certain needs that must be addressed for the project to continue.
I work for a large client in Guyana. One of the triggers that we needed to look into were the sea turtles along the coast. Guyana has a pristine beach that is famous for sea turtles nesting.
In my work, I oversee surveys that look at environmental concerns like birds, fish, sea mammals and, of course, sea turtles. The purpose of this project was to find nesting sea turtles and to put GPS units on them, so we could track where they swim out into the ocean.
What was the experience of traveling to the beach?
It was a 15-hour journey going from Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, to the beach where we were staying. We started the journey at 3 a.m. in Georgetown.
We drove 90 minutes to a giant river, took a speed boat across that river, got in cars, drove two hours across another area of land, took speed boats through rivers, into oceans, through indigenous communities and back through the ocean. That boat ride took about seven to eight hours with stops, where we got to see a lot of cool things.
Wow! And once you arrived at the beach, what was it like?
There are a few loosely covered houses on the beach. There’s electricity only by generator, no cell phone or internet and power just a few hours a day. We stayed in tents on the beach.
The local community cooked our meals. They have some really cool foods, a lot of fried dough. The culture is heavily Indian influenced, and that is reflected in the food.
What was it like putting GPS units on turtles?
The turtles are massive. There were two types of turtles: The leatherback turtles are up to 1,500 pounds, and the green turtles are up to 350 pounds.
The turtles lay their eggs at night. We slept during the day, which was nice because it was close to 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity, and then we would work during the night. We worked with local teams who patrolled the beach at night and let us know if they spotted any turtles. The first night, there were no turtles, but on the third night, we got the call.
It’s a big GPS unit and you have to glue it on with waterproof cementing. The leatherbacks took 30 minutes each, and the green turtles took three to four hours each to get a GPS unit. In total, five turtles got GPS’s while I was there.
We were with marine biologists, and everything was in their direction. We made sure that the animals and the people were all kept safe.
Next to the beach entrance, there’s a hatchery where locals bring turtles that are nested in poor locations. At night we saw adorable little turtles moving right into the water.
What’s your takeaway?
You never really know where your career is going to take you. I’ve always been
excited to go to places where tourists don’t normally go. It’s very eye opening
to go to these locations, not just for the natural beauty but also for the
people and the culture. It’s truly amazing and really helps you look at the
What was your experience growing up?
My mom is Israeli and I’ve been going to Israel almost every year. I did Young
Judaea Year Course where I made very close friends who I stay in touch with. The program helped with my love of travel.
I think in terms of Judaism, there is an aspect of pushing for education and opening your mind that I appreciate. And that helped me get on the path of asking a lot of questions.
Anna Lippe is a Washington writer.