Ann Somers is a biology lecturer. Her research concentrates on the tiny bog turtle, which gets no longer than 3-4 inches. The undergraduates in her 250-300 student biology section geared for non-majors know her for her conservation – and the service project they all do on campus, where they learn conservation in a hands-on way. But she’s best known for sea turtles. Every other spring she teaches a course for undergraduates, lasting January to August. This January and then in May, the class will take a service/learning trip to the sea turtle hospital at North Carolina’s Topsail Island. The hospital which was set up in the 1990s is being replaced by a permanent hospital – it’s under construction. “We’ll help move the sea turtle hospital! You can imagine!” Whatever needs doing, they will be there to do it. She expects that she and her students will take on “the dirtiest, nastiest jobs” as they also learn about and work with the large turtles, which are recuperating from encounters with boats and nets and from natural ailments. Her most recent class raised $4,000 at a special auction in Greensboro for the hospital. “They’re full-time students, and [some are] working full-time jobs. I admire them for the commitment they bring to the class.”
The capstone for the class is the trip to Costa Rica during the summer. She points to the poster on her wall: of Tortugeuro, which means “land of the turtle.” This Costa Rican beach area is the birthplace of sea turtle research. “A magnificent place … and huge number of nesting turtles there.” Each night, she and her students will quietly venture 4-5 miles along the beach, in darkness, watching as turtles come ashore, counting eggs as they come out of the mothers, reading tags on turtles – all under strict scientific protocols. One thing that sets the UNCG course apart from other universities’, she says, is that there is a big service aspect to it. And in this course students have the potential to work with all five sea turtle species, she says. “Two are extremely rare.” One year, she and some students silently observed a rare sight: a Hawksbill turtle coming ashore to lay eggs. “It just couldn’t be better. She wasn’t spooked.” But Somers had an almost impossible decision: which student should be selected to count the eggs? “How will I decide?” she explained to a student. The students quickly had the answer, whispering in unison: “It’s easy. You’re going to do it!” Somers treasures those kinds of moments. “That just keeps me going.”
Five thoughts about sea turtles
- People love sea turtles. For some reason, sea turtles resonate with people and they feel a deep connection with them – especially if you get a chance to look them in the eye and have them look back at you. The students get to do this in North Carolina and in Costa Rica. Therein lies a connectivity that lasts a lifetime. They get to touch the sea turtles. There’s a physical connection in addition to a spiritual connection.
- The release of healed turtles can draw big crowds. Each turtle scheduled for release must pass a final physical a week or so prior to the release date. The idea is that the turtles must go back into the wild to contribute to the ecosystem and to help generate future generations . … My students go to turtle releases [not as part of official trip] – such as the one in early June. There are so many spectators, they must be roped off.
- Sea turtle conservation stays in the news. There’s a hot issue all the time. Conservation often involves revisions of the regulations for commercial fishing. Conservation of wildlife, marine wildlife as well as other species, means we have to adjust how we go about our traditional [commerce] activities. Tempers can boil over. Nothing is more unnerving or terrifying than having your livelihood threatened. People in conservation have to be sensitive to this.
- The sea turtle course is not really about sea turtles. They are a powerful way to learn and teach about the human-earth relationship. What is revealed is the best and worst of humanity. Sea turtles are mangled by boats and nets and hurt by pollution – so much so that they are considered threatened with extinction. And then we see the best – you see hordes of volunteers under the guidance of scientists, helping conserve the sea turtle population. We see lots of people who can’t volunteer because of health or other issues willing to donate money to the sea turtle hospital and other conservation efforts.
- Doing sea turtle fieldwork with students is enriching and inspiring. I inspire the students, but they also inspire me. We learn together, we share experiences. Working in the field with the students adds an element that doesn’t exist just in a classroom setting … The late Hollis “Doc” Rogers, a professor here at UNCG, showed me my first sea turtle … He passed the torch to me – and I’ve kept it going.
Somers will soon email the alumni of her classes, to see who may want to participate in a big volunteer effort for the sea turtle hospital in late February. It won’t be glamorous. She recalls a trip where they shoveled gravel into wheelbarrows and moved it in oppressive heat outside, while the turtles were inside, nice and cool. “To learn and to serve,” she says.