Hailey Shoptaugh: Education Intern at the Rachel Carson Reserve


Rachel Carson once wrote “The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place.” After spending ten weeks walking in her footsteps, I couldn’t agree more.

Intern Hailey Shoptaugh photographing the teeth and sunken eye of an injured feral horse on the Rachel Carson Reserve.

My time as the education intern at the Rachel Carson Reserve was full of new sights and new experiences. Housed within the Beaufort NOAA lab, the Rachel Carson Reserve is one of many coastal reserves in the nation focusing on research, stewardship, and education. Rachel Carson herself spent a large amount of time with the Beaufort NOAA lab. She would frequently kayak to the island to conduct research and search for inspiration for two of her books: ​The Edge of the Sea​ and ​Under the Sea Wind​. Carson’s time here is what led the federal government to name the Reserve after her when they purchased the land in 1985. As part of the Reserve’s dedication to education, they offer many public opportunities for citizens to learn about the Reserve and the estuary ecosystem. The warm weather in the summer draws a huge crowd of tourists to the Reserve, and more help is needed to lead trips and camps – and that’s where I come in.  I want to describe to you a typical day in my internship, but “typical” here is not typical at all. My first day I led a group of 2nd graders around the reserve on a field trip while simultaneously hunting for a deceased sea turtle that had washed up somewhere on the beach. A few days after that I was holed up in the classroom making binoculars from toilet paper rolls. In early June I was tasked with photographing the teeth and identifying marks of an injured horse on the Reserve, and by the end of the month I was back out on a kayak searching for the same horse to track his healing progress. After chasing wildlife around for two months, all of July was dedicated to summer camps for kids from Pre-K to eighth grade. Essentially, I did whatever was asked of me – as crazy and varying as that was from day to day.

A ghost crab burying itself to hide from predators and photographers alike.

One project I had was to create a lasting educational tool to leave with the Reserve. I was very privileged to grow up with an estuary in my backyard, and I know that many people are not so fortunate. To bring the Reserve to those people, I decided to make a virtual version of the Reserve field trip. When my schedule allowed, I channeled my inner Rachel Carson and kayaked all over the Reserve. In the hours I spent trekking across the Reserve I was followed by feral horses, and got stuck in marsh mud, carefully stepped around herds of fiddler crabs, and fended off birds to save a ghost crab – all in an attempt to photograph the best parts of the island and its inhabitants. After a lot of photo editing and shoe scrubbing I was successful, and you can take your own field trip of the Reserve here: ​https://prezi.com/view/7PMbsqNzkGTJGE5dHig8/

Something I learned a long time ago was that educating children is the best way to make an impact. My own childhood field trips to the Rachel Carson Reserve inspired me to pursue a degree in Environmental Science, and with some luck I ended up right back in Beaufort leading those same field trips. The majority of my time throughout this internship was spent with school-aged kids coming to the Reserve to learn. I truly thought I knew what to expect on the trips, but nothing could’ve prepared me to see the estuary through their eyes. Everything was “Awesome!” Everything was “Ewww!” Everything was worth questioning- and I didn’t always have an answer. But, most importantly, everything was the coolest thing ever, and they couldn’t wait to tell their parents about it. And I knew when those kids promised to tell their parents to stop fishing near the Reserve, they would – and, hopefully, their parents would listen.

A view of the Pivers Island labs from the waterline of the Rachel Carson Reserve.

Although being an environmental educator is not my end goal, this was an incredible experience to help make a difference in my home community. As an Environmental Science and Political Science student, my passion lies with conservation and environmental policy. If I can help a third grader understand how sensitive the estuarine ecosystem is, I know I can help anyone understand – hopefully even some of the folks on Capitol Hill. After all, “The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place,” and to me, it is a place worth protecting.