Teaching Through Environmental Engagement on a Barrier Island: Education Internship at the Bald Head Island Conservancy
The moonlight glanced off the ocean’s gentle waves, the only light illuminating my post on the beach. I brought with me a folding beach chair, all-natural bug spray, a red flashlight, an energy drink, and my favorite podcasts downloaded on my phone. I waited for hours on the dark beach, eyes fixed in the low light on a wire cage buried in the sand. Every few minutes, I was to shine the red light on the cage to monitor the indentation in the sand, signifying movement in the nest below. Several families stopped to ask what was going on after seeing the red light and my Bald Head Island Conservancy staff sweatshirt. “This is a Loggerhead sea turtle nest that was laid at the beginning of the summer, so it’s almost time for it to hatch; maybe tonight will be the lucky night!” I responded, watching their eyes light up. I was then peppered with excited questions: “Are there really baby turtles in there?” “How many will make it to the ocean?” “How do mom turtles know to lay their eggs under this cage?” After sharing some sea turtle facts and stories, curious visitors are welcome to stick around in hopes of catching that magical 5-10 minute window.
Around 11 o’clock, I noticed a small, dark figure clumsily digging its way up from the sandy chamber and through the wire of the nest cage. I immediately told the family waiting with me to stick behind the “runway” set up weeks prior to funnel hatchlings towards the ocean. “And please, more than anything, do not use white light– no camera flash, no flashlights.” I reminded them amidst the excitement. It became evident to us why the hatching of a sea turtle nest is referred to as a “boil”; dozens of baby sea turtles flapped their flippers and wiggled in the sand, appearing to erupt from the chamber below. With a rubber-gloved hand, I picked up five hatchlings and placed them safely in an insulated cooler for transport back to the Conservancy for the researchers there. As more and more hatchlings emerged, they began to scuttle towards the ocean, instinctively attracted to the moonlight on the water. We watched as their tiny bodies battled the waves and were finally swept off into the big blue. I had never seen anything like it before, and I was so happy that a visiting family had the opportunity to witness this with me. And I absolutely did not get teary-eyed. Definitely not.
I believe strongly in empirical experiences as the most effective way to connect the public to the environment. Though that family probably won’t remember every detail about the process of sea turtle nesting or the average weight of a Loggerhead, I think the experience we shared that night will stick with them for a long while. This memory may influence them in the future to use reusable straws, consume less plastic, and put forth effort to keep our beaches clean. I think that when people are exposed to impactful experiences in nature, eco-friendly behavior comes more easily. Throughout the course of my summer as an Education Intern at the Bald Head Island Conservancy, I aimed to provide visitors with powerful, fun, and educational experiences on a unique North Carolina barrier island.
The Conservancy’s Education team for the summer was made up of myself and five other women. From different states and different backgrounds, we were thrown into a completely new living and working situation and became the most cohesive, productive, and fun team I’ve ever worked on. The programs that we led focused on engagement through nature tours and the incorporation of ambassador animals. For example, our “Reptile Roundup” program gives visitors the opportunity to meet the Conservancy’s resident yellow-bellied sliders, Eastern box turtles, and friendly corn snakes. Kids and adults alike love seeing and petting the animals, and it’s much more effective to discuss the adaptations of each reptile when they’re walking (or slithering) around, providing a live demonstration for the audience. Just like at the sea turtle nest that night, it’s not so important that each person remembers every detail about reptile anatomy, as long as they walk away from the Conservancy with just a little more awareness and appreciation for these animals and the important roles they play in the ecosystem.
In addition to our indoor programs, I conducted outdoor field education in the form of nature tours, guided kayak trips, and catch-and-release fishing. These were especially rewarding programs to lead as they showcased the unique Bald Head Island setting. I had the opportunity to turn abstract scientific concepts into memorable, real-life experiences for visitors. “Bald Head After Dark” was my favorite outdoor program; I started each tour with a short presentation on nocturnal animals and their adaptations, then my group and I would head out into the night to try and spot these animals for ourselves. As the summer progressed, I made the presentation shorter and shorter, simply because I knew the most fun and learning took place outside. We shined flashlights into ponds to illuminate the red glint of an alligator’s eyes, stopped our golf carts for herds of white-tailed deer, and stood silently in the dark to hear the chorus of the night in the maritime forest. Learning about these animals and ecosystems in a classroom is valuable, but experiencing them in real life allows participants to create strong personal connections and memories with nature.
Carl Sagan once said, “Not explaining science seems to me perverse. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” I wholeheartedly agree; there’s no better way to share the environment than teaching and engaging with others, which is why I’m adding a focal area in Science Communication to my Environmental Sciences degree at NC State. With this skill set, I hope to undertake further professional ventures in sharing educational environmental experiences with others, but Bald Head Island will always be the place where I first truly discovered this joy.