February 4, 2013

Student volunteer makes news saving cold-stunned sea turtles 

Along with volunteers led by Liz Browning Fox, Cape Hatteras Secondary School of Coastal Studies sophomore Brittany Waterfield's efforts with cold-stunned sea turtles made multiple national news outlets through an Associated Press wire story earlier this month.

Waterfield is one of t
he original members of a student group trained by the North Carolina Wildlife Commission to handle and transport sea turtles. Her interest in animals and wildlife was a natural incentive for her to participate in cold-stunned turtle training sessions during the last school year.

With a middle school program --Young Naturalists -- Linda Austin, who serves as media specialist in the secondary school, reaches out to students with varied interests centered around the outdoors and the rich natural environment of Hatteras.

Austin, working with agencies and local experts, provides those who began in middle school as young naturalists, and others that express interest along the way, with opportunities through high school to gain real-world experience in various outdoor, hands-on field studies related to environmental research and coastal resource management.

Austin says that the field studies provide valuable learning experiences for her students on multiple levels.

"They discover for themselves how environments function, develop a deeper understanding of balanced ecosystems and are exposed to career opportunities in a field that is of great interest to them," she says.  

That's true for Brittany Waterfield, who began as one of Austin's young naturalists in middle school.

Most recently, Austin hosted a cold-stunned sea turtle training session on Jan. 3 that was open to students and the community at large.

"There were more than 40 students that went through the training and more than 25 students have, at this point, passed the online test and applied/received their permits to handle/possess and transport sea turtles," notes Austin.  "Since making this training available to students last year, Brittany has participated in every training session including the nest sitting training, in which she volunteered for all summer long. She chased baby turtles down the beach at midnight, grabbed them out of the claws of giant ghost crabs ... and she sat those nests from 8 p.m. until nearly midnight for weeks in a row.  Brittany was also a young naturalist throughout middle school, working with programs offered through the North Carolina Wildlife Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife."

She singles out the efforts of "three round-th
e-clock Hatteras Island volunteers who provide information to the rest of the network to locate the stranded turtles.  

"They ["turtle whisperer" Frank Welles, Hatteras Wildlife Rehabilitation founder Lou Browning, and Liz Browning Fox] work tirelessly to keep us in the loop, and maintain the cold stun network during the winter months.”

Austin credits the success of the project to the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST), a non-profit organization that raises awareness and funds to pay the medical costs associated with rehabilitating the stranded turtles.

"We all are NEST volunteers. Each turtle brought in incurs medical fees of around $400. While this group is primarily stationed up the beach, the majority of cold stun turtles originate from Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.  If it were not for NEST, our efforts would be for naught."

Additionally, the "enthusiasm and knowledge base of North Carolina Wildlife Commission's Karen Clark is invaluable," asserts Austin, "as is her ability to keep 40 middle school students enthralled for nearly three straight hours!"  

Austin says that all of their training and rescue efforts are coordinated through Liz Browning Fox of the Hatteras Ocean Center.

Austin explains why the January 2013 training was so critical.

"The initial plan for this winter's training didn't pan out. So Liz, Frank, Karen and I worked out this alternative session at the school to cover the cold stun season.  We have been so excited over the number of volunteers and three weeks ago transported more than 30 turtles in only two days to vet and rehab services. I expect we will be getting the last of them in the upcoming week when the temps really drop."

As for Brittany Waterfield, she's just happy to play a part in the rescue efforts.

"My passion and love for nature and wildlife drive me to do everything I possibly can to help the turtles," she said. "It's gratifying to know that my efforts make a real impact. I feel so honored to have the opportunity to work with such a dedicated network of volunteers."

Dare County Schools Director of Secondary Instruction Nancy C. Griffin notes, "For several years, the district has offered a variety of field-based experiences at every school to enhance STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.  The opportunities made possible through such community partnerships as this transform classroom studies into life-long interests, helping to motivate students toward further education and valued careers."

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