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A Hokie spends the summer aiding, rehabilitating sea turtles

sea turtles
Ben Cotter (second-from-left) and other volunteers move a previously injured loggerhead turtle named Spock. Photo courtesy of Ben Cotter.

The day starts early for interns at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center.

“We have a number of chores we do every morning,” explained Ben Cotter, a senior majoring in wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “From preparing food for our more injured turtles that are in private tanks, to preparing water and scooping the tanks, there’s a lot that has to happen.”

That’s all before the guests arrive: To help raise funds to protect endangered sea turtles, the center, located in Surf City, North Carolina, offers tours to visitors and collaborates with an area summer camp to foster education about conservation and rehabilitation efforts.

Kathy Zagzebski, executive director of the Sea Turtle Center, said that the 11 summer interns are responsible for all aspects of the center’s mission.

“We have a three-fold mission when it comes to the conservation of sea turtles,” she said. “The primary aspect is the rescue and rehabilitation of injured sea turtles. Another is the close monitoring and protection of nest sites from human and predator interference. And the third is education and outreach, where we encourage people to learn more about sea turtles and hopefully get involved in conservation efforts.”

Three species of sea turtles are common along the mid-Atlantic coast: the green sea turtle, the loggerhead, and the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world.

“The injuries we see are seasonally dependent,” Cotter said. “In the summer, the majority are sea turtles that have swallowed fishing hooks because they like hanging out under the fishing piers, waiting for free food. The other challenge is boat strikes.”

For Cotter, having the chance to interact with wild animals has been a highlight.

“The public is generally who we’ll hear from about injured turtles,” explained Cotter, who serves as the social media chair for the Virginia Tech student chapter of The Wildlife Society. “They’ll call us, and we’ll drive out to pick up the turtles. Bringing them in is fun because we are trained to help handle them and can assist in the vet side of caring for the animals.”

Cotter has also monitored nest sites, helping to ensure that sea turtle hatchlings make it from the nest into the water. He even participated in the challenging task of moving turtle nests from a threatened location to one that is more secure for hatchlings.

“It’s a pretty careful process,” he said. “If you jostle an egg or accidentally flip it over, you’ll kill the embryo. And it’s really important to place the eggs exactly as they were in the first nest. I describe it as a puzzle with high stakes.”

Collegiate Assistant Professor Kevin Hamed of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation said that fieldwork is a strength of Cotter’s.

“Ben is an incredible student, and he’s really in his element in the field,” Hamed said. “In our class I could always count on Ben to be looking for and identifying species that I might’ve missed. I wish it were possible to bottle his enthusiasm and passion for taking care of our natural world.”

Cotter, whose five minors include forestry, biological sciences, Pathways to Sustainability, and both the science of water and the water and society specializations under the Blue Planet pathway, demonstrated a particular acuity in dealing with the various systems that supply the injured turtles with sea water.

“We rotate our interns through a range of assignments,” Zagzebski noted. “One of those assignments is to help our water team, which is tasked with monitoring our water pumps and filtration systems and making our salt water. Ben jumped right into that work and quickly became someone that our water team supervisor really relied on.”

For now, Cotter hopes to continue learning about how to make a difference in protecting threatened and endangered species.

“I know that I’d like to get a master’s, but I haven’t decided yet if I want to go straight into that or take a gap year doing fieldwork,” he said. “In addition to turtles, I’m interested in working with birds, so I’m trying to explore as many avenues as possible.”

Story by David Fleming