Saving Sea Turtles one school at a time: Environmental education in Uruguay.

There is no doubt sea turtles are one of the most marvellous but most endangered animals in our oceans. A study in Uruguay showed that 70% of green turtles had marine debris in at least one section of their digestive tract 1 – which is shocking. However, what if you can educate children, teenagers and adults to have a positive impact in sea turtle conservation?

Uruguay, located in the southern cone of South America by the Atlantic Ocean and Rio de la Plata, is home to five of the seven species of sea turtles worldwide. Every summer, these reptiles feast on Uruguay’s seaweeds, marine invertebrates, and fishes in searching for nutritious food.2 Karumbé is a non-government organization that has researched, rehabilitated and conserved sea turtles, and educated citizens in Uruguay, since 1999. Ayelén Pacheco coordinates the organization’s educational and outreach programmes.

Ayelén is well known in Karumbé for being motivated, cheerful and a great leader. Her passion for Earth’s biodiversity heritage and geoconservation brought her to her first job as an environmental educator, while she was studying to become a geologist.

When she had just returned from the last sea turtle release of the summer, we had a morning talk on how she got into conservation, how to deal with “eco-phobia” around sea turtles, some of the challenges she faces every day working in South America, and her greatest moments in the field. Let’s dive into the details!

Ayelen holding two drawings about marine animals made by kindergarteners.

Ayelén after an activity with kindergarteners in Uruguay. Credit: Ayelén Pacheco.

Ayelén, how did you end up coordinating education programmes at Karumbé?

I’ve always felt curious around nature, and my family had a great influence on me. My brother is a biologist and my mum is a teacher – I watched her plan and design content for her classes all my life. One day my brother encouraged me to volunteer in Karumbé, so I did. Back in 2014, I was cleaning tanks and feeding the sea turtles that were in rehab. I felt frustrated sometimes because of the negative conditions some turtles were coming into the emergency room (ER) with.

I wanted to help to conserve sea turtles, and I realized I could be proactive in trying to educate and change human attitudes. At that time the education team was only one member: me. I started to coordinate the outreach activities – and here we are! I now connect both my passions: geoconservation, biological and nature heritage with education.

What are your main activities in your role?

Karumbe’s research centre is located in La Coronilla, by the Atlantic coast, and most of my time is spent designing the strategies on how to engage with the local community.  I create the educational activities content with each school and high school in mind, to enrich the experience of every student. I arrange activities for specific subjects, like science or art, and also for students with different learning capacities. I also organize the agendas for the activities and allocate a member of the team to be there.

People gathered by the beach during an educational activity.

Ayelén hosting an outdoor activity in La Coronilla. Credit: Ayelén Pacheco.

I also design the communication strategy for our social media – which has been a learning experience. I realized there are a lot of kids and adults that are sensible to certain topics. In particular, some images or data can cause anxiety, sadness and frustration. Is called ecophobia. My main focus is to speak about the data we collect – which can be devastating – in a way that can have a positive impact on people. We want our message to be: “hey, let’s keep being responsible with plastic and save the turtles!”

What is the best part of your job?

I really enjoy every step of the process, from traveling around Uruguay, to designing the activities with the teachers, and getting to know the students.

If I have to choose one thing… I would say the best part is to experience the impact our activities have over time. Recently, a school we worked with built a recycle point and developed science and conservation clubs. Seeing how the students change their point of views through the years is amazing.

Ayelen and three more children on a beach clean up activity.

“I am really blessed and grateful to be working in environmental education.” Credit: Ayelén Pacheco.

What is the one thing you don’t like about your job?

Definitely giving interviews in front of a camera on live television! We invite them when we take turtles back to the sea, as it is important to showcase our work to the whole country. Talking about our work and importance of sea turtles outside of a classroom is the most challenging activity for me.

Talking of achievements, what are you most proud of so far?

I’m really grateful to Karumbé’s directors for giving me the opportunity to develop and grow the outreach team. Now we are a team of 10 and we have accomplished a goal for the first time since Karumbé was created – we reached 1,500 students in a year in 2022! Building a confident and strong relationship with each teacher and institution, and the fact they continue working with us each year, means our work is having a positive impact.

Ayelen and three children searching for marine debris in ocean water samples during an educational activity by the beach.

Ayelén started as a volunteer in Karumbé and now leads a group of 10 volunteers that reached more than 1,500 students in 2022. Their activities occurred all around Uruguay, from classroom’s workshops to beach clean-ups, microplastic hunting and sea turtles releases. Credit: Ayelén Pacheco.

What are the challenges of working in conservation in Uruguay?

Everything happens slowly in Uruguay. Financing is hard to access for conservation projects. So, trying to develop these projects with little resources is the greatest challenge. I would also say there is a lack of support, for instance our research centre is located in one of the largest feeding grounds and Marine Protected Areas in Uruguay – and it is difficult for us to reach and research around the area. Cooperation between researchers, government and the local community is something we should work on.

Finally, what advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

First of all, I would say reach out to any organization that interests you and get involved. If you are passionate about the conservation of sea turtles, Karumbé has its doors open for volunteers from all around the globe.

A scientist is holding a sea turtle. Children and teachers are lining by the sea shore waiting for the scientist to bring the animal back in the ocean.

Every winter in Uruguay’s waters, turtles suffer from hypothermia, or get tangled in debris and can be found on the beaches. Once Karumbe’s professionals find them and rehabilitate them, they return sea turtles to the Atlantic ocean in summer. Karumbé celebrates this activity with the schools and students they worked with throughout the year. Credit: Ayelén Pacheco.

Any experience you get will help you discover which parts of a job you like and dislike, and in which areas you feel most comfortable.

And my second piece of advice is: learn and develop skills that will enable you to come up with solutions or prepare you for a future role. For instance, I got the chance to take online courses about environmental education, and got a similar role in another organization, where I developed new skills that I can also apply in Karumbé.

“I am a true believer that to conserve sea turtles we have to think globally and act locally. So if you are a career switcher, student or early professional, get involved with your community as soon as you can. It’s worth it!”

If you are interested in learning more about Karumbé, and want to have a great experience in Uruguay with them, please visit their website, Instagram and Facebook pages.

You can contact them by e-mail on


Author Profile | Giuliana Vomero

Giuliana is a Marine Biologist born and raised in Uruguay, South America. She is passionate about bridging ocean and marine science with society. She has gathered experience in coordinating environmental outreach projects, events, and networking building. In her free time she loves to write and share the wonders of the ocean and stories behind the work of passionate conservationists worldwide.

Connect with Giuliana on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter or Visit her website.



  1. Vélez-Rubio GM, Teryda N, Asaroff PE, Estrades A, Rodriguez D, Tomás J (2018) Differential impact of marine debris ingestion during ontogenetic dietary shift of green turtles in Uruguayan waters. Marine Pollution Bulletin 127: 603-611.
  2. López-Mendilaharsu M, Estrades A, Caraccio M N, Calvo V, Hernández M, Quirici V (2006) Biología, y Ecología de las Tortugas Marinas en la Zona Costera Uruguaya. Pp 247-258 At: Menafra R, Rodríguez-Gallego L, Scarabino F, Conde D (eds): Bases para la Conservación y Manejo de la Costa Uruguaya. VIDA SILVESTRE URUGUAY, Montevideo.

Interviews, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Educator