Alumna active in working
with sea turtles in North Carolina
Susan Zedella Miller ’02 had a fascination with sea turtles even back in the fifth grade. When she saw them for the first time on a field trip to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, she remembered thinking, “It was like seeing living dinosaurs.”
Now she patrols Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, looking for sea turtle nests during nesting season (May through August). She and a team of volunteers monitor the beach every day at sunrise during nesting season, looking for sea turtle tracks.
She is a member of the board of directors of the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project (WBSTP), a nonprofit volunteer organization that works to protect the endangered and threatened sea turtles of Wrightsville Beach and their nests. All sea turtles in U.S. waters are protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and are under the joint jurisdiction of NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Sea turtles, though air-breathing reptiles, live most of their lives in the ocean. However, adult females must return to beaches on land to lay their eggs. They often migrate long distances between foraging grounds and nesting beaches.
The volunteers at Wrightsville Beach do their best to respect the fine line between caretaking and nature’s processes. They try to facilitate safety for the nests and baby sea turtles once they hatch, but let the eggs hatch naturally.
“Sometimes, turtles will lay nests below the tideline, and in these instances we do relocate the nests,” Miller said. Once nests are identified, the group keeps close watch. The average incubation time for eggs is 60 days, though Miller said they can develop faster in hotter temperatures.
The group does not help the baby turtles to the ocean once they hatch. It is believed that the hatchlings use magnetic orientation, and they orient themselves to the globe during the crawl. This is critically important, because it enables them to return to the same beach someday to lay their own eggs. In other words, it’s best not to mess with nature’s way.
But the group does help facilitate that trek. To keep the turtles focused on getting to the water, volunteers dig “runways,” wide shallow trenches from the nest leading directly to the water’s edge.
Miller calls the experience of watching sea turtles hatch and travel to the ocean “amazing.” One time, a ghost crab entered a runway intent on making several baby turtles a meal. Miller said, “My adrenalin was pumping and I didn’t even stop to think,” and she grabbed the creature with her bare hands. Both crab and human survived the incident, not much worse for it.
Once the nest hatches, volunteers wait three days and then perform a nest excavation. They count the number of eggshells, telling them how many hatchlings left the nest on their own. They also release “live stragglers,” hatchlings still at the bottom of the nest. The public is invited to attend a nest excavation and even take photos without flash.
Each nesting season on the beach may see on average of one to four nests. There is a lot of strolling the beach when no sea turtle tracks are to be found. But that doesn’t mean the volunteers aren’t working. “We pick up the litter,” Miller said. “ We tend to the beach. There’s always something to clean up.”
The group also works closely with the Karen Beasley Rescue and Rehabilitation Center of Topsail Island, which works to bring injured and sick sea turtles back to health to be released again.
As a volunteer and board member of WBSTP, Miller has more responsibilities than just combing the beach and protecting nests and baby turtles. “I help decide how donations are used,” she said. “I participate in public outreach programs and events such as free turtle talks and an Earth Day fair.” She also created a Facebook page for the group found at WrightsvilleBeachSeaTurtleProject.
When Miller is not involved with sea turtles, she is working her day job as a self-employed writer and editor. But she also is involved in another nonprofit organization, the Cape Fear Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. The mission of the foundation is “the protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches through a powerful activist network.” Recently the chapter worked to pass legislation making a good portion of Wrightsville Beach smoke-free. According to Miller, the biggest environmental concern is not the actual smoking but the butts left behind on the beach. One family of five documented they have picked up 54,415 butts since August 2010!
Taking Personal Responsibility
And in her own personal life, Miller takes such ecological measures as to refuse to use single-use plastic straws (she owns a steel straw) and bringing her own cup to Panera Bread. “Plastic straws and plastic baggies are two very commonly littered items, so many of us have made the effort not to use these items,” Miller said. Plastic baggies are particularly dangerous to loggerhead turtles because in the water they resemble jellyfish, a favorite turtle food. If a turtle ingests a plastic bag, its digestive tract becomes fatally clogged.
Miller was a double major at Otterbein, in theatre arts and secondary integrated language arts education. “Looking back, I really appreciate that I was trusted to undertake two majors at Otterbein,” she said. “At first they were a little hesitant, because one major at Otterbein can be arduous and challenging, but I was determined, and they said ‘go for it.’ It taught me if you want to do it, do it. And I think that attitude and determination has helped me to be self-employed.”
But when she’s not working, she will enjoy her early morning walks on the beach, keeping a keen eye peeled for tracks in the sand that tell her a sea turtle has been there to lay her eggs. •