Devil Fish

The Backstory and Beaufort
by Emma Kelley -- September 26th, 2013

The best place to start is usually the beginning, but to describe this new beginning with Duke University’s MEM program, I have to tell a story explaining why I’m at Duke.

About two years ago, I found myself on a small boat out in the Pacific Ocean, gearing up for my first SCUBA dive on the Great Barrier Reef.  After a rocky, two-hour boat ride from Townsville to the reef, I was thoroughly chilled by the cold rain.  My clothes were drenched and plastered against my goosebumped skin.  I was green from seasickness, but nothing could take the smile from my face.  I was about to achieve a life dream I’d chased since childhood.  I was going to experience the legendary reef world I had only read about in books and seen in documentaries.

My buddy and I geared up and jumped in.  As the bubbles cleared, I gazed at the reef and found… so much of it looked… lifeless.  There were no bright corals, no cascading schools of fish, no sea turtles, and certainly no sharks.  I eventually spied healthy corals, schools of small fish, and even christmas tree worms, but I was still so confused.  This was THE Great Barrier Reef.  I wasn’t expecting Finding Nemo, but the lack of larger species and low percentage of coral cover was alarming for a reef in one of the best protected and best studied marine reserves on the planet.

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Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus). Photo credit: Camilla Wentzel.

Up until that dive, I had pursued a career as a marine research scientist.  I love learning, especially about the marine ecosystem.  But at that moment, I realized learning might not be enough.  We have to know how to apply this knowledge to protect the environment.  This applies to marine issues beyond the Great Barrier Reef.  What use is understanding the blood physiology of tuna if we can’t halt their population decline due to overfishing?  Today, I find myself at Duke University, training for a career to manage, protect, and conserve these ecosystems.

Speaking of studying at Duke, this past weekend was the Coastal and Environmental Management (CEM) students’ visit to the Duke Marine Lab!  The lab is located in Beaufort, North Carolina, and well worth a visit.

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View from the lab.

After a day spent meeting the marine lab’s incredible faculty and learning more about the next two years ahead of us, a second year CEM offered to take us along to a sea turtle nest excavation.

Volunteers with the Atlantic Beach Sea Turtle Program find and protect sea turtle nests to improve the odds of these small reptiles surviving.  Their website offers great tips about what we can do as individuals to help protect sea turtles and their nests.

We arrived at the beach around 7pm and listened to one volunteer explain the excavation.  The previous evening, a volunteer found the nest as the last hatchlings were departing.  They roped off the area in case a few more hatchlings were still buried.  The volunteers decided to excavate the nest to find out how many eggs had hatched and to see if any hatchlings were struggling inside.  Hatchlings unable to make it from the nest to the sea are taken to the North Carolina Aquarium, where they recuperate and are eventually release back into the wild.

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The excavation. Photo credit: Alli Hensch.

As night fell, they reached the nest and started removing empty shells.  Over 100 empty shells were removed with only two “duds” –eggs that will never hatch.

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A “dud” egg. Photo credit: Alli Hensch.

I was slightly disappointed not to see a sea turtle hatchling; however, this was good news.  The hatchlings had departed their nest and were hopefully starting life in the sea.  Thanks again Kim!

CEMs at the sea turtle nest excavation.

CEMs at the sea turtle nest excavation.

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