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!