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Swimming with Turtles

Langley School administrator spending two weeks studying turtles in Australia.

Once the final bell rings on the last day of school, most teachers and administrators try to put some space between themselves and all things educational.

For Meg Clute, an administrator at the Langley School, this summer will include a two-week excursion to Australia to study hawksbill turtles as part of an EarthWatch fellowship program.

"The EarthWatch Fellowship for Administrators receives funding for research projects all over the world," Clute said. "Scientists apply to EarthWatch for research work and EarthWatch provides volunteers to help with their research. The hope is that the volunteers will bring back to their communities and schools what they've learned and be able to make a connection with their curriculum and schools," she said.

EarthWatch is an organization dedicated to environmental conservation and preservation through education and volunteer-aided research, according to its Web site, www.earthwatch.org.

Clute first heard about the summer research program when a teacher at the Langley School, Suzannah Weiss, spent part of her summer vacation in Madagascar two years ago.

"When she came back, she gave us a presentation with lots of photos and some really amazing stories, and I decided that I wanted to try to do the same thing," Clute said. "She was able to really incorporate a lot of what she learned into different things here at the school."

After departing for Australia this past Wednesday, Clute said she was going to a "remote, small island off the Great Barrier Reef near the northern-most part of Australia," a place she said few tourists are ever able to see.

JOINED BY FIVE other volunteers and working with Dr. Kristin Dobbs and Ian Bell, Clute will spend 15 days catching, cataloging, tagging and releasing hawksbill turtles in order to study their population.

"The adult turtles can grow to be 175 pounds," she said. Some of the turtles will be taken back to the island for some laproscopic exams and returned to sea shortly thereafter.

The hawksbill turtle is named for their beak-like nose which resembles that of a hawk, she said.

"This is a critically endangered species of turtles and considered among the most beautiful," Clute said. The turtles are prized for their shells, which are made into tortoiseshell accessories such as eyeglass frames, barrettes and pins.

"Hunting these turtles is banned in most countries, but their population is also threatened by certain types of fishing methods," she said. "The turtles can get caught in some of these commercial fishing lines, some of which are hundreds of miles long. The turtles get trapped in them and die."

A lifelong lover of marine life and a competitive swimmer in her spare time, Clute said this expedition was the "most perfect" match that could have been made.

"I didn't request this trip or anything, it just worked out," she said. "I've always been interested in nature and the outdoors. I think I should be a science teacher in my next life or something," she laughed.

Being exposed to the elements, especially the sun's rays, for long hours and surrounded by water and living in tents on an island with none of the comforts of home are just part of the adventure, she said.

"The opportunity to go to one of the great natural wonders of the world and be a part of a group that's working to save an animal that's critically endangered is amazing," she said. "My family is very excited for me ... my daughter is a little jealous that I'm going."

Clute said she hopes to be able to hold a presentation for the students at the Langley School in the fall to tell them of her trip and all she learned while working with the turtles and the research team.

"The big focus here at the school is doing things for others in the community and the world in general," she said.

THE SCHOOL IS looking forward to having another teacher exploring the world outside McLean as well.

"We emphasize professional development for our faculty and staff, and certainly Meg going on this trip will be great for the students because it'll give them a look at the outside world, which will help our curriculum," said Sharon Ifft, a spokeswoman for the school.

"Hopefully this will inspire other kids to get involved in the environment and do the kinds of things Meg will be doing in some capacity here at home," Ifft said.

The experience of working with endangered species, Ifft hopes, will help students realize that "there are people out there doing things to help" keep threatened species alive, she said.

During her trip, Clute will be working as a research assistant, receiving some training on various methods used by the scientists she is working with, said Susan Rauchwerk, director of education with EarthWatch.

"There are 120 projects going on around the world at any given time, all sponsored by different organizations," she said. "Meg is one of 300 teachers or school officials who received a fellowship from a contributor that allows us to team scientists with volunteers to conduct their research."

Rauchwerk added, "Part of the requirement for each fellowship recipient is to provide a plan of how to implement what she's learned on her trip once she returns. She'll have new skills and will receive a good natural history of the area she's working in. It's a cross-cultural experience as well," she said.

Still, it is hard not to be jealous of a summer trip to Australia, especially when your mother is the one going.

"She's always loved to travel and she's always loved the outdoors," said Kate Clute, an elementary school teacher who hopes to take an EarthWatch expedition in the future.

"I'm really proud of her and very excited that she's taking advantage of this incredible opportunity," she said. "She's always loved being in the water and sea turtles. I can't wait to hear all about it when she comes back."