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Turtle Rodeo'ing

Langley School administrator returns from Earth Watch expedition in Australia.

As it turns out, the turtle's reputation for being a slow mover is somewhat undeserved. Just ask Meg Klute, Director of Parent Alumni Relations at The Langley School in McLean.

It was while perched on the bow of a small speedboat, zipping through the shallow waters of the Great Barrier Reef and just before hurling herself on to the back of a fleeing turtle, that Klute truly got a taste of how fast the creatures can be.

"You know, when you see turtles during a dive or on TV, they are always sort of slowly swimming along ... but when something is chasing them — such as a boat — they can swim up to 20 miles per hour," said Klute.

Despite the shaky nerves that inevitably accompany a high speed chase and a frightened 150 pound sea turtle, Klute took the plunge, jumped on top of her quarry, and got a taste of what some marine biologists call "Turtle Rodeo'ing."

"The driver has to be very skilled because you're sort of zig-zagging through four feet of water after this turtle, and the person is standing on the bow waiting to jump ... it was very exciting, exhilarating and kind of scary," said Klute.

Klute spent two weeks of her summer participating in an Earth Watch fellowship program that enabled her to get up close and personal with both hawksbill and green turtles, as she and the other volunteers acted as research assistants to two scientists conducting studies on the endangered animals. Hawksbill turtles, which were the main focus of the study, are endangered because their attractive shells, despite being banned in many countries, have a huge market.

"People eat the meat and in some countries, turtle eggs are considered a delicacy," said Klute. "But the hawksbill turtle is actually where the term 'tortoise shell' came from, and people use their shells for jewelry, hairbrushes and that sort of thing."

KLUTE WAS INSPIRED TO APPLY for a the Earth Watch fellowship program after a colleague at The Langley School returned from an Earth Watch study in Madagascar.

"At the time I thought, that sounds so neat, and I tucked it in the back of my mind," said Klute.

Anyone 16 years old and up may sign up to volunteer for an Earth Watch expedition.

"No experience is needed," said Anna Janovicz, Education Assistant with Earth Watch's Education Program. "You just pay for a share of the costs, and this also helps to fund the research."

However, for teachers who apply and are accepted into the Earth Watch fellowship program, the trip is provided for free.

"They have to write two short essays describing themselves and also telling us how they are going to take their experience back to their school and their community," said Janovicz. "We sign up teachers because the project affects and influences more than just themselves."

According to Janovicz, Earth Watch sent 200 teachers on its various expeditions in 2005.

"We have 140 research projects that cover everything you can imagine," said Janovicz. "Volunteers choose exactly what they want and teacher fellows are assigned expeditions, but we use their subject area and content area to match them up."

IMMEDIATELY UPON HER ARRIVAL, Klute took a 24-hour boat ride up the north coast of Australia to the tiny island of Ingram. She was accompanied by two teenage Aborigine boys, two Queensland Park & Wildlife guides, a landscaper, one principal and three teachers.

"It just happened to work out that there were four Americans and four Australians," said Klute.

Every day, two volunteers would stay on the island and the rest would accompany the scientists on the two speed boats used for turtle rodeo'ing. The volunteers were taught how to spot the turtles and would assist with their capture. Once they collected as many turtles as possible, the group would return to the island to collect data on each animal.

"We measured the head, the top of the shell, the bottom of the shell, the width, everything — and we weighed them," said Klute.

The scientists would then use a laparascope to look at each turtle's internal sex organs which supply a complete breeding and reproductive history of the animal.

"This is the longest-running study on sea turtles," said Klute. "It's been going on for 14 years and they make two trips a year to study their foraging and nesting habits."

During the 15-day expedition, the volunteers and scientists camped on the tiny island of Ingram.

"The experience of helping to save an endangered species and living on this uninhabited island was incredible. I mean, here you are, you brought your tent from Virginia, there are no bathroom facilities and we had to bring everything we needed for the time we were there ... it was very much back to basics," said Klute.

KLUTE RECENTLY GAVE A PRESENTATION on her trip to the lower-school students at Langley, and she is hoping to do another one in the near future for the middle-school students. Klute says she was pleased with the level of interest the students showed in the plight of the sea turtles.

"So many of them seemed fascinated by them," she said.

True to the goal of the Earth Watch fellowship program, Klute made sure to emphasize to the students that there are things they can do to help sea turtles — even from as far away as McLean.

"There are simple things you can do and they basically all involve taking care of our water and the earth and not abusing our resources," said Klute.

She encouraged students to cut back on the use of plastic bags by bringing a reusable tote to the grocery store, and by bringing their lunches in Tupperware containers. Klute explained that turtles often consume plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish, and subsequently die from suffocation.

"According to what I've been hearing from some of the parents, they really heard that message, and have been trying to practice it at home," said Klute.