Zoo educator heads to Great Barrier Reef to study endangered sea turtles

November 22, 1991|By David Michael Ettlin

A Baltimore Zoo educator is heading to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, leaving the land of the Maryland terrapin to help save endangered sea turtles.

Jennifer A. Kureen will leave Sunday for her second Australia trip in as many years, to live in a beach camp through December and much of January -- peak summer months Down Under -- while watching over the egg-laying rituals of female loggerhead and flatback turtles.

Ms. Kureen, 35, says the trip -- taken at her own expense with no salary -- provides a unique opportunity to work with turtle researchers, picking up conservation experience and helping to teach the hundreds of people who visit the area.

The closest thing to a giant sea turtle at the Baltimore Zoo, where Ms. Kureen has worked for five years, is the large plastic turtle shells that youngsters can crawl in at the Children's Zoo. As director of the Zoomobile education outreach program, she works with box turtles, insects, reptiles and mammals.

Still, the Australian odyssey is valuable, she said, because "conservation education relates to all animals in the zoo.

"I have chosen the sea turtle, because it is one of my personal interests," she said. "But all the animals have a story -- even our native turtles like the box turtle. I'll tell the kids that if each of them picked one up and took it home, there wouldn't be any box turtles left in the state."

Ms. Kureen said she started her education career in a more conventional way -- teaching home economics and health in New Hampshire and in New York, where an opening as education coordinator at a small zoo lured her out of the classroom.

"I guess I always had the interest in animals and conservation . . . Once I started doing that, I said 'This is where I belong.' "

She also worked at nature centers and at another zoo and cared for university lab animals before moving to Baltimore.

In Australia, she will be among about 150 volunteers during the peak egg-laying season working at the Mon Repos Environmental Park, in the middle of the east coast at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef.

The public beach is blocked off during the season, and hundreds of people come by at night to learn about the sea turtles, watch them lay and bury eggs in the dunes, and escort them back to the surf.

Staff members gather the crowd in a tent area on the other side of the dunes for turtle talks and slice shows. Then, when a beach sentry radios that a turtle has reached its destination on the beach and will not be scared away, visitors are escorted there in groups of 70.

"Once they start laying eggs, they can be approached and lights turned on," Ms. Kureen said. "They're not going to stop. They're programmed that once they start laying the eggs, the best protection is to finish and cover them up. Then we can bring the group around the turtle, turn lights on, and watch them lay their eggs.

"I'll discuss the whole process. We watch her cover her eggs together and walk her back to the water."

The turtles are tagged, so researchers can track them through sightings along the vast Australia coast. While flatback turtles remain largely in Australian waters, loggerheads may turn up as far away as Indonesia or New Guinea.

As long as the endangered turtles remain in Australia, they are protected by conservation laws. But in other countries they may be killed for their meat, eggs and shells.

Ms. Kureen said the killing of a single turtle can be a great loss for its species -- particularly egg-producing females, which at intervals of several years may lay 400 to 600 eggs in breeding season.

She said living in the beach camp is inexpensive because participants chip in about $10 a week for food and there is no rent. She said that relatives will help her with the biggest expense -- airfare -- and a friend will care for her pets.

And later in the Australian summer, Ms. Kureen will be back in Baltimore -- perhaps in time for snow.

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