Friday, July 13, 2012

Grieving and Healing

Unfortunately, life working in rehabilitation is not always the highs of victories - of nests and releases. In fact, things like this are even more precious to us because of their rarity. I made a comment in my release blog that said that the amazing experience that it was would help me to carry on through the difficult times ahead. What's funny about that comment, is that I hardly had any idea what those difficult times would really be like. June 25th, was the hardest day we’ve had at the hospital so far on an emotional level. We experienced so much defeat in a very short amount of time, and it gave the phrase “difficult times” a whole new meaning for me. However, it gave me a lot more than that as well.

On that Monday, we got 4 turtles in the course of 24 hours, all with horrific injuries, all hanging on by a thread, and two of those turtles died that day. The other two looked like they wouldn’t make it to morning. During that Monday and the days that followed I would be bashed with a lot of different emotions, all profound in their own ways. I was angry at the world for being a cruel place, and for leading these animals to such painful ends. I was disappointed with modern medicine for not being able to do more for them. In this day and age, in times of such great technology and medicinal advances, there are still times when we are useless to bring these turtles back. I was frustrated to see a beautiful animal, and know that it's giving up, and can’t stand another day of suffering. But maybe most potent for me was dealing with the injustice of the situation, I could practically taste the injustice as I thought about how this turtle should be way out there catching a ride on a current, harassing some crabs, taking a nap in the sand - or just anything else. These turtles shouldn’t be dying before my eyes. They certainly didn’t deserve this struggle. 

One of the lessons I learned that day is that sometimes our role as a hospital is not necessarily one of rehabilitation as much as it's a sanctuary. A few times last week turtles came, and we did all we could to make them comfortable. We gave them a clean space, we gave them pain medication to ease their suffering, and we kept them warm and calm, and they died in peace as a result of their illnesses or injuries. As much as it pains all of us to watch that turtle go, to monitor it and to soothe it, knowing it has limited time left with us, you have to acknowledge that the turtle is better off here than the alternative – at least while they’re here we can keep them calm, safe, and free of as much pain as medically possible. 

What I was experiencing was nothing short of a grieving process. To not only see these animals die, but to also see them suffer haunts you for a while. 

But if a job like this is often entrenched in defeat, why do we do it?

In short, we do it for the chance at victory, because we might be able to change the course of another turtle’s future. We do it for the little victories that can eventually lead to a big victory. When I think of little victories, I think of turtles that beat the odds, but do it one baby step at a time. It starts with staying alive another day, it continues with eating heartily, developing an attitude again which indicates a new found will to fight and live, the new scale growing underneath the scab, each day brings with it something new to appreciate. That’s not to say that there aren’t setbacks – hunger strikes, discouraging test results, new ailments that pop up, etc. But hope is ever present that the setbacks will be brief and progress will resume. 

I’ve experienced many of my own little victories, and seeing these sea turtles progress has been everything I’ve ever dreamed of, but one that sticks in my mind revolves around one of the turtles we got on that fateful Monday. Her name is now Nichols, and she came to us with not just one appalling wound, but two. We think that one flipper got caught in a crab pot line, completely twisting it around, mangling the flesh and becoming severely infected. This would’ve been enough to worry about – but she also had a huge hole in her back from being hit by a boat. When she came to us she was in such sorry shape that we didn’t expect her to make it through the night, and that just added to the gloom of the day. However, we were encouraged to find her alive the next morning, and the morning after that. During her first few days we primarily focused on managing her discomfort – keeping her warm and dry (we weren’t sure if she’d be strong enough to swim after all she’d been through), but we were eventually able to put her in water. The first time we put her in water has to be in the top 10 best moments I’ve ever experienced at the hospital – because she went from being so depressed and lifeless and miserable to the happiest little turtle in the world. 

As the water filled the tank, she laid there, looking listless, until suddenly she realized that she had about 4 inches of water, and she perked up and began marching around the tank, exploring it as though she’d awoken from a deep sleep. It was like a salve on my broken heart to see her so happy by the simplest of things. She was splashing and swimming, and she suddenly looked ready to fight again. She does this adorable thing where she opens her mouth while she swims around – I’m not sure if she’s just drinking, or if she’s threatening the world not to mess with her, but I like to think it’s a little bit of both. 

Nichols, swimming in her tank, ready to take on the world.
Working with this turtle has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. She has a long road ahead of her – she’s by no means in the clear. Her future includes surgery and extensive recovery time, but as long as she hangs in there, I will be beside the tank cheering her on. 

We love what we do because as much as the situations we are faced with may disappoint us, may break us down for a while, we know that there are turtles at the hospital waiting to surprise us, to amuse us, to enchant us, if only we give them the chance. We can’t spend too much time grieving for the ones that are lost because we can’t heal the turtles that can still benefit from our care if we are too wounded ourselves. We say our goodbyes and allow ourselves a moment and we never forget them as we move forward. We continue to clean tanks and administer treatments, but we also go out to the beaches and open our doors to hundreds of people each day to share with them the message that we all have to enact a change together.  

I am grateful for all the ways I’ve already grown through this internship, and all the new strengths I’ve started to cultivate. When I feel broken down, when I feel like the grief is too much, I just remember that if no one was willing to work through their grief, the 350+ turtles that have been released from this hospital and the turtles that have been released from other turtle hospitals around the world, would never have gotten their second chance. So we pick ourselves up and we find the strength to keep going, because Nichols needs us, because Monroe needs us, because Lefty needs us, because Ocracoke needs us, we are their caretakers, and it is our privilege to be.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Nesting Action in Topsail

Did you know that the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital got its start in nest protection? It's true! Many years before the Beasley family started rehabilitating turtles, they were out on the beach protecting nests from predators and poachers. This summer, the interns have been keeping the tradition alive by being active in the nesting portion of the Topsail Sea Turtle Project.

Nesting season seems to have come into full swing in the past couple weeks. So far, I've seen two nesting females, three nests, and got to assist relocating two nests. The most recent time that the interns got out to see a nesting female was the most profound to me, and I think that's because of what we all went through that day long before the loggerhead came out on the beach.

Monday, June 25th, was hands-down the most emotionally difficult day we've had at the hospital this summer. We had four new turtles come in in less than twenty-four hours, all with horrendous injuries. Two of them did not make it despite our best efforts and prayers. I was beside myself with grief when I left the hospital at the end of the day. I don't want to delve too far into this topic right now, because I plan to dedicate a future blog to it. I think it's important to mention this, though, because it's hard to understand how this experience affected me without that background.

Anyway, that night, I'd finally decided that it was time to settle in and get some sleep when we got the call at about 9:30. We hear, "TURTLE ON THE BEACH!" and there's a minute or two of complete pandemonium as people rush about the house changing clothes, putting on shoes, and running out the door to pile into the car.

Once we finally arrived on the beach and all sat in the sand to watch the female as she covered her eggs, I felt a huge sense of peace that I had been longing for all day. Here we had a healthy turtle out on the beach laying her eggs, doing exactly as she's supposed to do. She gives her babies the gift of life, and leaves them to fend for themselves, never to see them again - as it has happened for thousands of years. This is why we go through the hard times - in hopes that more turtles are out there to breed and keep the species going.

One of my favorite memories of the summer so far is when our beach coordinator gave us permission to approach the female from behind and give her a pat on the back and tell her "good job" as she headed out to the ocean. Just like, having your hand on a wild animal, and then watching her jump into a wave and continue on, forgetting you almost as soon as that water carries her out of your grasp - it makes you feel so small.

 Unfortunately, she laid her nest right in front of a huge condominium, which meant that if the babies hatched there, they could easily go the wrong way, attracted by the lights instead of heading out to the ocean. This meant that we had to relocate the nest to a more peaceful place.

The two times I've helped relocate nests have followed a pretty standard order. The first part is trickier than you might think - find the egg chamber. Turtles work hard to camouflage that chamber as best they can, so it can take quite some digging to find the nest. Here's some photos from my second relocation - the first happened at night, so there are no pictures from that experience.
When moving eggs, it's always very important to try to keep their orientation intact, because if you rotate them you can harm the egg's chances of developing properly.

At this point, we'd uncovered the eggs, and started to transfer them into the bucket to move them.

Once all the eggs are out, the beach coordinators have us take a bunch of sand from the bottom of the nest. When the female is done digging the hole for the eggs, but before she starts actually dropping the eggs into the nest, she excretes a lot of mucus, which is absorbed the the sand in the bottom of the nest. We take the sand at the bottom of the original nest and place it at the bottom of the new nest, to me, this has both scientific and sentimental properties. It's possible that the mucus contains elements that are biologically important to the development of the eggs. However, I think of it this way - this egg chamber, these excretions are all this mother can ever give to her babies. Intervening in sea turtle nests is not taken lightly by the coordinators, but it is done when they feel that we can give the babies a better chance for survival by moving them to a more suitable location. Moving the mucus-saturated sand is a small way in which we can take mama's gift and sacrifice with the eggs to the new nest.

You might be wondering how we come across nests when we aren't actually there to watch the female lay her eggs. Well, the morning of my second relocation, I got a few opportunities to see turtle tracks by checking out some false crawls.

Not all false crawl turtle tracks make the typical "U" shape. This mama wandered all over trying to find a suitable place for her nest.

 I guess what I've most learned from watching the females nest is that life goes on. It seems cheesy - but it was a salve on my heart to think that though we lost 2 turtles that day, relocating the nest that was in an improper location may have given 130+ turtle hatchlings a chance to live. It doesn't negate the loss or omit it, but it reminds us that that loss is not the end, and it's not simply a failure, it is only one part of what we do, and we still have opportunities all around us to make a difference for the future of these animals. What we did that day, and what we do each time we experience such a tragedy, as our director Jean tells us, is grieve for those that can't continue on in their struggle, but pick ourselves up and care for those that can.

Back home, my friends and I had this tradition of making a wish at 11:11. That night, after seeing off the nesting female as she took off back out into the black ocean, I looked down at my phone and it was 11:11, but I'd already gotten my wish.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Sea Turtle Release!

Hello everyone!
I'll warn you now - this is going to be a long one. In this blog I want to tell you about one of the most validating experiences of my life so far. On June 6th, the staff and volunteers of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center released 14 healthy endangered and threatened sea turtles back into the wild. It was really moving to get to see the "end" of the rehabilitation cycle after experiencing a lot of the "beginning" and "middle." Certainly the memories from this release will serve as motivation to continue giving my best to the hospital in the coming months.

Experiencing the release was particularly gratifying because of the emotional roller coaster that rehabilitation work has proven to be over the past month I've been working here. The hospital takes so many turtles in, some that are critically injured, or have been sick for a long time. Of these animals, some are beyond the point of benefiting from our care, and we have to let them go. The reason I describe this difficult part of what we do is to emphasize the joy that we all experienced in being able to see some of the animals we care for go free - in fact, it was over half of the animals we had in the hospital. Seeing these animals released doesn't exactly heal the heartbreak we experience for the ones we can't help, but it certainly gives us strength to get through it. Here's some pictures of a few turtles we released that day:

Durham, a loggerhead, freshly bathed and hanging out while his tank is cleaned and then filled with clean salt water.
Myself, Brie Myre, keeping Veteran, a green sea turtle, calm before his final checkup on release day.
Waterway, a Kemp's Ridley sea turtle, takes a swim around his tank for the last time.
Snaggle, a Kemp's Ridley, ready for a bath on release day.

We started the day in a semi-normal routine, cutting fish and squid, feeding the turtles their rations (complete with vitamin and calcium supplements), and cleaning out the tanks. The routine didn't exactly feel "routine," though, because of the buzz of excitement that seemed to hang in the air. That buzz was also lined with a hint of anxiety, and many of us took an extra moment with special turtles to prepare ourselves for goodbye.

Most people that volunteer at the sea turtle hospital will say that they have certain turtles that they have bonded with. This typically stems from learning their amazing stories, seeing the injuries or illnesses that they have survived, and putting in a certain amount of personal investment in seeing them recover. It's hard for me to pick a "favorite" at the hospital - but I can say that seeing some of them go free was a bittersweet experience for me. Of course, the end goal of rehabilitation is always to make these animals well so that they can go out, be free once more and make more baby turtles while doing it. The emotionally complicating factor, however, is that you know once you let them go, you can't take care of them anymore, you can't continue to protect them from the dangers of the world and, maybe hardest, you won't see them again.
Westi, the loggerhead I helped release, comes up for a breath while swimming.
Waterway, ready for his exam.

Beautiful Veteran.
Bishop, a Kemp's Ridley sea turtle, reminds us who's boss during his examination.

At the end of the day, our director and leader Jean Beasley sat the interns down for a reflection period. She asked all the interns to describe the parts of the day that meant the most to them, and when it came to be my turn I came up with two major things. The first, I think, was coming to terms with having my dreams handed to me. What I mean by this is I've wanted this internship for nearly my entire life - and up until that point, being here felt very surreal to me. I felt as though at any moment I would wake up back in Nebraska, as has happened so many times before. Part of that realization was feeling, on this day, interns go from individuals to a team. I know, a little cheesy sounding maybe, but wearing our "Sea Turtle Hospital" t-shirts and surviving the stress, mutual joy and sadness played a big part in cementing us together. I can't describe the crazy high that I experienced while carrying a huge loggerhead turtle in front of a screaming crowd, and knowing that you are one of a very few that get to experience this honor - but we all felt a form of that high that day.
Volunteers carrying Scuba, our biggest loggerhead, out to his vehicle for transport to the beach.

Myself and Charlie Lynch carry Westi to a vehicle to be transported to the beach. Photos Courtesy of Wilmington Star News.
The second thing I described as something that meant the most to me, of course, was the experience of the release itself, and all that it represents to us: it's the reason why we do what we do. Not to mention I was taken aback by the crazy emotions that I didn't know what to do with during this process. To be honest, I was terrified as I helped carry Westi and Freeman out to their respective vehicles to be driven to the beach, and then as I helped carry Westi down the beach and into the water, waves crashing into us until we got the opportunity we were waiting for. In my head I'm trying to take in everything that's happening - the 500 chanting schoolchildren spelling out Westi's name, Westi breathing in the ocean air and frantically flapping her flippers against my legs, the look in her beautiful eyes as she realizes that she is home at long last. All of this while it's difficult to hear much of anything over the voice in my head screaming, "FOR GOD'S SAKE, DON'T TRIP!"
Lead intern, Charlie Lynch, and Brie Myre carry Westi to freedom. Photos courtesy of Topsail Online Facebook page.

 Luckily, everything went smoothly. I wish I had the words to describe the feeling I had as I was waist deep in sea water on a rainy day, holding onto a frantic beast of a turtle. I felt excitement and anxiety - excited for the turtle, but worried about her future, and then Charlie and I counted to 3 and let go. The single memory that I wish I could crystallize and revisit over and over was when I felt her push away from me, out into the oblivion, she never looked back and that's the way it's supposed to be. It's a feeling that something in this world went right, and a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, we had done all we could do for her, and she was embracing her second chance. The memory of  that moment brings tears to my eyes. In that moment, the two thousand screaming people were gone, and it was just the other volunteers and I with the turtles in our own private victory. I know in the scheme of this hospital and these animals, what I've given so far is so small, and to share this experience and this victory is something I will always be grateful for, and will give me strength to go through the tough parts of rehabilitating sea turtles as the summer goes on.
Veteran, waiting patiently at the beach ready for his big break!
I've been procrastinating on writing about this experience because I feel that it is so impossible to put into words what it means to all of us - and I feared that I couldn't do it justice. What I had to eventually accept was that doing justice to it is impossible - but I could still try to give you some pieces of what it meant to me. What we do here is really special, and I guess what the experience of the turtle release gave me was an indoctrination into the team, and a new motivation to give my all for the cause and a huge piece of humble pie with a side of gratitude. Stay tuned for more specifics about our turtle patients, their treatments, and major hospital happenings in the coming days!

Oh, and did I mention that release day was also one of my fellow intern's birthday?
He's the big 2-0!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Our First Turtle Nest

Hello everyone! The past two weeks have been a whirlwind - I've moved out here to Topsail Beach, North Carolina, met my inspiring coworkers, and have undergone my formal training, though training will certainly be continuing as the summer progresses! I'm so excited to be here and to be apart of a mission I so strongly believe in - rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing endangered and threatened sea turtles, and providing protection of nests on the beach. Over the summer I hope to give you a peek into what life as an intern in this field is like through this blog, as well as highlighting some patients and chronicling major events. I can't wait to give you more information about what's going on in the hospital, but I'm so excited about something that happened on Saturday morning that I can't keep quiet about it!

Saturday, one of my fellow interns and I set out to do our morning beach walk at 6 am. Those that know me probably would understand how getting up for a walk so early was a tough sell, but I must say our efforts were rewarded! We weren't walking more than 20 minutes when we came across a set of turtle tracks.

Loggerhead sea turtle tracks on Topsail Beach, NC.

The previous night had a very high tide and strong wind, so the tracks were pretty obscured. We followed their general direction to where the turtle's body pit was, this is where she settled down to lay the eggs.
Once we found the nest area, we marked that off with stakes and bright orange tape so we could find it again and called our beach coordinator to let her know where the nest was. While she was on her way to the beach access, we finished the walk. We met up with our beach coordinator, Debby Grady, and the three of us started sleuthing to figure out what the turtle did while she was on land. This particular nest was somewhat confusing for several reasons, and at first we thought it might be a "false crawl," A false crawl is when a turtle comes ashore to nest, but for whatever reason, decides not to actually lay the eggs and goes back to sea. Sometimes she'll be scared away by another animal, light, or curious people. There were signs that made this nest seem like a false crawl, such as all the animal prints we found on the nest.
Loggerhead sea turtle nest on Topsail Beach.

The tracks would indicate a false crawl because if a dog/cat/coyote/fox smelled the eggs, chances are they would at least try to dig them up, but because they hadn't, it would seem that there were no eggs to be had. However, there were also signs to indicate that the nest had eggs in it, such as all the broken vegetation strewn deep into the sand. The vegetation indicates a nest with eggs because the turtle probably tore down some nearby vegetation as she was digging and disguising the nest chamber after she laid the eggs. Because of the confusing nature of the nest, we ended up calling in another beach supervisor to give another opinion.

After some more analysis done by a couple of the beach walking supervisors, we discovered the egg chamber - it wasn't a false crawl after all! The beach protection program is participating in a multi-state cooperative to learn more about nesting female behavior through DNA analysis. In order to collect the DNA of the female that lays the eggs, one egg is taken from each loggerhead nest. This study is being conducted throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia to help track nesting females. This information has shed light on a lot of interesting factors of nesting that were previously very difficult to establish. For example: we can map out where each female nests, how many nests she lays in a season, and we can map out her nests in time, when she nests and in what conditions, as well as how much time goes between each nest.
Loggerhead sea turtle egg.
After we finished with this part, we started collecting data about where the nest was with the GPS and physical markers like the nearest beach access. We also measured the female's tracks to get an estimate of her size. We then protected the nest from predators by covering it with wire mesh and putting up stakes to warn people away from the area.
Beach Coordinator Debby Grady and my fellow intern covering the nest with wire to keep predators out.
Our beach coordinators Debby Grady and Pam Refosco measure the female loggerhead's tracks.
The nest after we finished protecting it.
 I was so excited to have the opportunity to actually see sea turtle tracks and a nest in person, and I can't describe the feeling that I felt when I actually got to see the eggs in the egg chamber. It's just amazing to be a part of sea turtle conservation at last and to get to help out these wonderful animals directly. This opportunity is particularly special because so few people actually get to work with these federally protected animals, without a permit, it's not possible to so much as get close to a sea turtle! Just to give you an idea of how special finding this nest is - last year's interns walked all summer and never were able to find a nest on their own, while we found it on our very first walk! We are so lucky - and I'm definitely grateful for the opportunity to be here and for my family and friends who have worked so hard to help me get here.

Well, it's time for me to get back to work, but stay tuned to learn about one of our special patients, Monroe and more about the daily work done in the hospital!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Goals for the Summer!

Hey everyone! I wanted an opportunity to test this website out before I actually leave for North Carolina on Sunday, so I thought now might be a good time to put in writing a few personal and professional goals of mine for the summer.

 I'm super excited for this internship because I know that I'll get daily experiences with sea turtle rehabilitation and husbandry, and once the nesting season picks up, I'll get regular opportunities to watch sea turtles dig their nests, and yet later, see those hatchlings escape from their eggshells and venture into the ocean for the first time. I feel like this summer is a sort of culmination of all the work I've put into my internships and coursework so far - I know that it's going to challenge me to use everything I've learned in the classroom and in the field, and it's going to challenge me to learn a lot in a short amount of time.

1. Learn how to cook!
2. Get a feel for graduate school programs that will let me learn more about sea turtles
3. Use my previous experience with public speaking to engage our visitors, and challenge myself to continue to improve.
4. Get a more rounded picture of the rehabilitation process as a whole
5. Learn more about specific rehab concerns pertaining to sea turtle patients
6. Make strong bonds with my intern colleagues and (hopefully!) turn them into long-term friends
7. Learn the stories of each turtle and the special requirements to keep each species and individual we care for as healthy and happy as possible
8. I hope to get an opportunity to get around South Carolina and surrounding areas and experience the culture of a place I've never before spent a significant amount of time in
9. I hope to open my mind to new ideas and philosophies of conservation and preservation of this wonderful species, allowing my fellow interns and other staff to impact me, and use my past experiences and passion to impact them as well
10. Learn the proper way to use "y'all" ;)

Here is a video of the first time I saw a sea turtle in a rehabilitation setting last summer at WHOI.

Before I go, I must thank the wonderful people from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Career Services and the Dean of Students for providing me with a "Get Paid for an Unpaid Internship" Scholarship that is assisting me in being able to afford to live in another state and pursue my dreams at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital. I am really grateful for their support, and appreciate what they've done to help me advance my career for the past several years. If you'd like to learn more about what UNL's Career Services does for its students click here!

I am looking forward to the chance to make my family and colleagues proud, I hope that you'll tune in from time to time to join me in my journey into the field I've dreamed of entering my entire life.

Finally, for anyone who might be reading this from the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital, I can't wait to meet you!