Sea turtle conservation

Marine science student works with sea turtle conservation and rehabilitation

University of Delaware junior Merope Moonstone’s career path was cemented the day she released a juvenile green sea turtle back into its natural habitat after a three-week rehabilitation stint at the Volusia Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, Florida.

Moonstone, a marine science major in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, helped the animal recover from injuries resulting from a hook found in one of its flippers during an internship with the rehabilitation center. Caring for the animal, which she named Crush after the green sea turtle from Disney’s Finding Nemo, taught her about the veterinary side of sea turtle rehabilitation but left her with some unanswered questions.

“I learned a lot about the veterinary side of sea turtle rehabilitation during the internship, but I wanted to be more involved in conservation,” explained Moonstone, who is currently working with the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute (MERR) as part of her Semester-in-Residence Program experience.

MERR, based in Lewes, Delaware, is a non-profit organization dedicated to marine mammal and sea turtle conservation through stranding response and rehabilitation.

“It’s one of my great pleasures to host interns and help them develop some potential career skills and experience,” said Suzanne Thurman, MERR executive director.

UD's Merope Moonstone (left) assists Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute. Photo by Evan Krape

UD’s Merope Moonstone (left) assists Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute. Photo by Evan Krape

Like any other volunteer, Moonstone responds to stranding notifications and helps provide care for marine animals found alive. A marine animal is considered stranded when it is out of the water and unable to survive without assistance. 

When a call comes in, MERR volunteers go to the stranding site and collect data about the location, the weather and the animal, including whether it was found dead or alive. Back at MERR, volunteers measure the animal and work to determine its species, age and gender. They also check for tags that would indicate the animal was being studied by researchers. 

The data and photos of the animal are shared with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Biologists and others scientists use the information to understand the animals’ lifestyles and the dangers they face in the ocean, as well as to investigate ways to better protect the animals from threats.

UD's Merope Moonstone works with a turtle at the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute. Photo by Evan Krape

UD’s Merope Moonstone works with a turtle at the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute. Photo by Evan Krape

Injured animals are treated in the hopes that they can someday return to their native habitat like Crush. 

“Simple surgeries can fix smaller problems, like a hook caught in a turtle’s throat, but larger problems, like missing a shell or flipper, can take several months of rehab,” explained Moonstone. If an animal’s injuries exceed MERR’s capabilities, it is transferred to a larger facility with additional rehabilitation options.

Moonstone said that internships have been a valuable part of her college experience. Working in the community has not only given her real-life work experience, it has allowed her to explore different career options and learn what kind of job she’d like to pursue after graduation.

“The hands-on experience like working with the turtles and learning about all their individual personalities has solidified my career path,” Moonstone said. 

After graduation, she hopes to continue sea turtle conservation work, perhaps in a place like Costa Rica, where they are endangered. 

UD's Merope Moonstone (left) and Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute. Photo by Evan Krape

UD’s Merope Moonstone (left) and Suzanne Thurman, executive director of the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute. Photo by Evan Krape

About the Semester in Residence program

The Semester-in-Residence Program is an intensive residential research experience for undergraduate science majors. Students participating in the program live, work and study at UD’s Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes while exploring marine studies through introductory graduate-level classes and research. 

– Article by Cori Ilardi

*Source: University of Delaware

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