How a turtle inspired me to get into environmentalism

Meet Lukas the Turtle (pictured below). Lukas is a loggerhead sea turtle who’s about 50 years old and lives in the Mediterranean Sea. The photo below shows Lukas suffering from a traumatic blunt force to his carapace. The force trapped air under his shell, forcing him to stay afloat and leaving him unable to dive down for food or to cool his body temperature.  Injuries like these, caused by boats and fisherman, leave turtles to starve and dehydrate. So why am I sharing the story of Lukas with you all? Well, Lukas is what inspired me to pursue my degree in Environmental Science and Policy from the Nicholas School.

The story begins with my application to the DukeEngage program in Dalyan, Turkey. DukeEngage was established by Melinda Gates to provide undergraduate students with service-based summer projects, with themes focusing on issues abroad and in the United States. As a freshman, I was very undecided on what I wanted to study, but had grown up by the ocean and was always fascinated by sea life. I saw a program advertising a summer working on the Mediterranean at a sea turtle rehabilitation center and thought I’d give it a try. Little did I know how much this summer would affect the trajectory of my life.

I spent the summer working at DEKAMER Sea Turtle Rescue, Rehabilitation and Research Center. Above are pictures from the city of Dalyan. On the left a traditional Turkish coffee spread and on the right a picture from the weekly open-air market. A few miles from town sat a 5 km stretch of beach known as Iztuzu Beach. For hundreds – maybe thousands – of years, the beach has served as one of the main breeding grounds for loggerhead sea turtles in the Mediterranean. With pressures to develop and a proposed beach resort along the sandy stretch, local turtle populations began to decline. DEKAMER, sponsored in part by Pamukkale University, opened its doors to rehabilitate injured sea turtles, protect the surrounding nesting grounds, conduct research and educate the public in issues of sea turtle conservation.

The pictures above showcase just a few of my daily tasks at the center. The first picture was preparing temperature recorders that would be placed in nests to study the effect of nest temperature on sex determination. The second is a morning patrol in which Taylor Johnson (Duke ’16), Çisem Sezgin (a graduate student at Pamukkale) and I caged the nest of a turtle to prevent predators from disturbing the nest.

So where does Lukas come into play with all of this? Lukas the Turtle was found with two fishing hooks stuck in his upper-right flipper, leaving him stranded in a dirty harbor. The center got the call at around 11:30 p.m., and as the only intern awake, I was selected to assist in the rescue. We drove to the marina, which was about 45 minutes away, and saw the turtle aimlessly trying to free himself from the fishing line of which he was ensnared. Initially thinking I was just going to tape the rescue, I found myself in the water of the marina, attempting to bring Lukas back to the dock where the rest of the team would be there to hoist him up to safety. In a blur of adrenaline and pure luck, I managed to get both arms around his shell and swim him over to the dock. Within minutes both of us were out of the water and on the way back to the center. The next morning I awoke to find that the head staff at the center had a tradition of naming the turtle after its rescuer and that rescuer was me. After about a year in the care of the center, Lukas was finally released back into the sea.

The summer of 2015 left me feeling inspired to continue the work of con in the U.S. From this experience, I learned about conducting field work and the workings of a nonprofit organization. It also ignited a passion for fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves. Every time I have some hard exam or 10-page paper to write, I think about Lukas the Turtle, who is now swimming freely throughout the Mediterranean because of a Duke undergrad from Little River, South Carolina.