CELS alumna wins first Cocos Island Conservation Scholarship

At 162 meters down, Callie Veelenturf gazes through the 3-inch thick acrylic viewing sphere of the 7.5-ton, deep-sea submersible. Photo by Jon Betz

From a young age, Callie Veelenturf had no desire to be a “girly girl.” It could have been her dislike of the color pink or her strong desire to be outdoors spending her days chasing frogs, catching snakes and observing turtles on her grandparents’ farm in Harmony, Maine.

When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, as a child her response was always the same, “I want to save the animals.” Fast forward to her final year of high school in 2010 during an immersive environmental education program in Hawaii when Veelenturf found herself face-to-fin with a massive green sea turtle. While most people would be terrified of a 300-400 pound marine animal, she stared directly into its eyes and made a silent promise to spend her life conserving marine wildlife.

Her experiences, paired with her drive to conserve marine life, led Veelenturf to pursue an undergraduate degree in marine biology with a minor in wildlife and conservation biology at the University of Rhode Island. While at URI, she was a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Hollings Scholar.

In December, Veelenturf was awarded the first Cocos Island Conservation Scholarship through the Turtle Island Restoration Network, which led to a 10-day sea turtle and shark tagging expedition on Cocos Island, a small island approximately 350 miles off the coast of Costa Rica and deemed the “most beautiful island in the world” by Jacques Cousteau. The scholarship was made possible through a donation to the Turtle Island Restoration Network from Deborah Kearney for the purpose of providing an early-career marine conservationist the chance to participate in one of the Cocos Island Expeditions.There was more in store for the 2014 URI graduate. The recipient of a master’s degree from Purdue University recalled a more recent encounter, this time with an adult leatherback female who she watched emerge to lay her eggs on the beach about half of a mile away from the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge field station in Costa Rica where she was a research assistant. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature predicted that the 2014/2015 leatherback season would be the last on Ostional Beach. Seeing this critically endangered 6-7-foot reptile for the first time moved Veelenturf to tears.

During the boat trip to the island, the team was escorted by dolphins. The Norfolk, Mass. resident was awestruck by the natural beauty of the island and was excited to get to work…[Read more]