Friday, January 03, 2014

Sand In Her Shoes: Sea Turtle Scientist by Stephen R. Swinburne

It is closing in on midnight in late May and everyone has walked a half-mile of beach along the noisy Caribbean surf searching for tracks. Kimberly is accompanied by two of her graduate students. Three local Kittitians and two American guests fill out the turtle party. Suddenly, a dark swath of disturbed sand emerges out of the surf line running straight up to the dunes. Kimberly trains a beam from her red headlamp.

"It's a nesting leatherback!"

Although she is slim, blonde, and logs lots of time on tropical sands, Kimberly Stewart is no beach bunny. Her beach time is late at night, face down in the sand in a soggy Sun, Sand, and Sea Turtles tee-shirt, with her head, equipped with a headlamp on her cap, in a turtle pit. She's at work at the business end of a large leatherback as she tries to collect the sea turtle's eggs as dozens of them drop into its deep nest. This scientist is into her work, body and soul.

"I eat, sleep, breathe sand. It's in my hair. It's in my car. It's in my house. It's all part of the job," she says.

Along with her wet tee and sandy flip-flops, sea turtle scientist Kimberley Stewart wears several professional hats. Her late-night nest hunting and relocating of nests and eggs above the storm surge line--all aimed at giving that one-in-a-thousand survivor its chance to reach the water, mature, and return to St. Kitts decades later to lay its eggs--are just one part of her work.

Wearing another hat, she is a marine science researcher, implanting GPS tags in her nesting mothers, taking blood and tissue samples, and recording ocean and weather data to further research into the life cycles of the turtles and the changes in their habitat. Her third hat is that of educator and community advisor, teaching fishermen to value the turtles, not for their meat, but for their role in keeping the balance of nature upon which their fish catch depends, instructing youngsters in beach preservation and sanitation, controlling light pollution, and caring for turtle nests and hatchlings at her summer children's camps,  helping local Kittitians swap their fishing jobs for the job of protecting turtles and their habitat, and guiding local businesses in establishing an eco-tourism industry on their small island.

In the forthcoming Sea Turtle Scientist (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), science writer Stephen Swinburne shows the nitty-gritty work of a marine biologist in the fascinating sub-set of sea turtle conservation, with a full appendix for reference and plenty of fact boxes ("Sea Turtle Facts," "Modern Sea Turtle Threats") for the young research paper writer. Adding to that with dramatic photos, a brief history of the sea turtle and of the islands called the Tortugas (Spanish for turtles), and the personal story of a scientist with a passion for preserving the world's largest reptiles in their ocean environments, Swinburne's just-published title in Houghton Mifflin's remarkable Scientist in the Field series is for middle readers who may think that scientists only work in drab labs or amid strangely wired gizmos. Instead, it provides a glimpse into a little known science career pursued hands-on in novel settings and exotic locations with fascinating creatures of the wild. A recommended addition to school and public libraries and for young readers with a passion for wild animals and their continued life on this planet.


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