Published Monday, March 17, 2014

Students spend spring break working to protect endangered sea turtles

Kemp's ridley turtle hatching on the beach - by Sea Turtle Inc.
Kemp's ridley hatching -- Photo by Sea Turtle Inc.

Picking up trash seemed like the perfect way to spend spring break to a group of 13 Washburn biology students. It doesn’t hurt that the trash is on beaches in South Padre Island, Texas, and the work will help protect a critically endangered species of sea turtle.

Judy Scherff, an adjunct instructor in biology, and 13 members of the Washburn Sea Turtle club are in South Padre working directly with Sea Turtle Inc. The organization is focused on preservation of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

“People don’t know how many species are standing on the edge of the planet ready to fall off, metaphorically,” said Scherff. “It’s an honor for me to be involved in trying to save this turtle.”

Washburn students are clearing beaches of debris left last week by spring breakers from Texas universities. Nesting season for the Kemp’s ridley turtle begins April 1 and without a clean beach the odds would be even worse that an egg would become a turtle that makes it to the ocean.

As the eggs are laid, Sea Turtle Inc. carefully moves them to a special corral for their incubation period and releases the turtles after each is hatched, weighed and measured. The group works closely with a bi-national effort between the U.S. and Mexico to get as many of these turtles as possible to the sea.

The alternative spring break project – a first for Washburn – was open to any student who joined the Sea Turtle club. Scherff said they are all biology majors by coincidence. The group left Friday and will return this weekend.

“My hope is these 13 people will all have a love affair that has begun with the turtles and that their experience will be such that the trips will continue,” said Scherff, who teaches courses in the human impact on the environment. “It’s so important for land-locked universities to make a connection to the sea. I’m so glad Washburn has made that connection.”

Two mass media students, Michael Goehring and Linnzi Fusco, traveled to Texas on their own to film the work of the Washburn Sea Turtle club and Sea Turtle Inc and will produce a documentary after returning to Texas in June for the release of the turtles into the ocean.

“No matter what happens, it’s going to be a really great experience,” Goehring said in an interview last week. “It’s going to be cool to be sharing the experience with the biology department.”

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