Thoughts on Sea Turtle study at the Duke Marine Lab
Ten years ago, I had the privilege of being one of the co-founders of the Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles course at Duke University Marine Laboratory. Originally it was taught in the summer by Jeanette Wyneken of Florida Atlantic University and me. It was one of the first full courses on sea turtles offered in the US. Once Scott and Karen Eckert came on board at Duke, it was obvious that they might take the lead on the course. And just 3 years ago with the Marine Lab’s adoption of block course scheduling during Spring semester, they added to the Spring course a field trip to the largest leatherback nesting rookery in the Americas, Trinidad.
Duke University Marine Lab emphasizes experiential learning and the Trinidad field course is a paragon example. If students want a full contact experience with sea turtles, this is the course. I had the opportunity to accompany Scott, Teaching Assistant Wendy Dow, and 18 students to Trinidad on a most memorable adventure to the nesting colony at Matura Beach on the northeast coast of Trinidad. The whole experience was intense, with some days beginning at 4:30 am and others ending after 2 am (yes, we are all still recovering!). In four nights on the nesting beach, I helped measure and tag over 30 leatherbacks. Some students processed as many as 23 in a single night! At some points, leatherbacks were coming ashore like landing craft in Normandy on D-Day. And our job was to collect data and tag each and every individual if possible. Students in the course were conducting research projects concurrently, examining everything from egg output to leatherback responses to camera flashes (associated with ecotourists).
A key feature of this and other Beaufort Signature courses is immersion in the science, but also in the communities with which the sea turtles interact. We stayed in Suzan Lakhan’s guest house in Matura and went into the field with staff from Nature Seekers, an NGO founded in 1990. Suzan is an inspirational leader who has assembled an amazing cast of characters in Nature Seekers. This community drew in people with a passion to protect leatherbacks and to restore coastal ecosystems. I have had the opportunity to see this sort of extraordinary leadership before in select places around the world—people drawn together by a cause, successfully doing work many would consider impossible, and with very modest resources. I think I can say our entire group was inspired, and challenged, by what the Nature Seekers are doing in Trinidad.
I have been teaching field courses at Duke for 15 years and this was by far one of the best group of students I have encountered. They were full of energy and up for most any challenge. They are the sort of people who assuage any concerns you might have for the future—we are in good hands. I think the setting energized all of us in surprising ways, from hikes through the jungle to the rhythms of steel drum (also known as pan) percussion over dinner. This course was nothing less than a life-changing experience and I look forward to doing it again very soon!
As a post-script to my blog, I want to mention one more fortuitous event that occurred in a trip full of good fortune and wild experiences. While waiting in the Atlanta airport terminal on our way home, emails from colleagues advised us to pick up the latest National Geographic Magazine (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/05/leatherback-turtles/appenzeller-text). At last, a long waited article on leatherbacks, much of it taking place in Trinidad was available. What a wonderful way to relive the memories of an already memorable trip!