Eleven-year-old Felicity Lipchak is all about turtles. Sea turtles, box turtles, snapping turtles, bog turtles, spiny softshell turtles, chicken turtles, diamondback turtles, mud turtles — it matters not.
As far as Felicity is concerned, a turtle by any other name would be as sweet.
But her favorite, by far, is the sea turtle.
“I like sea turtles because their way of life fascinates me. Have you ever had to stop your car to let a turtle cross the road? Did you wonder where they were going? What they were going to do? Why they were going?” she ponders. “Turtles fill our heads with mystery all day. To find out more about these turtles would be a dream.”
The First Flight Elementary School student recently raised $113.25 for the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) through a school project designed to instill in students the importance of helping local nonprofits.
Since 1995, N.E.S.T. volunteers have been responsible for the daily care of the turtles in rehabilitation. Volunteers also monitor turtle crawls and nests on the beach, respond to turtle strandings and oversee turtle nests until hatching.
For her project, the creative young entrepreneur fashioned wallets from duct tape, made koozies, squishies (basically a kiddie stress ball), flower pens, and headband-bobby pin bows.
Twenty-five percent of the proceeds went toward cost of materials, but the rest went to her favorite nonprofit.
For her efforts, the elementary student received a letter of commendation from N.E.S.T., which was presented to her by the organization’s president, Dennis Pohl.
Pohl says nonprofits that rely on donations often struggle to find adequate funding, and in an economic environment — when donations compete with basic daily needs of potential donors — the horizon can seem a bit bleak at times. And then along comes someone like young Felicity Lipchak.
“People like Felicity, who are always positive and ready to do more than they should, are very uplifting for me,” Pohl says, adding it’s even more heart-warming because this young benefactor is part of the next generation of sandals-on-the beach turtle soldiers. “As you can imagine, Felicity’s fundraiser is one of those things that just makes one smile.”
Felicity has taken another step toward becoming a champion of downtrodden sea turtles — which were placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act — by enrolling and completing volunteer training with N.E.S.T.
Training involves everything from identifying nests to monitoring, education and husbandry.
“As a N.E.S.T. volunteer, you’re part of something very important, something that can have a lasting impact on the survival of multiple species of prehistoric creatures that are vital to the health of our oceans,” Pohl says.
Some of the nonprofit’s trained volunteers work with staff at the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center at NC Aquarium in Manteo to successfully rehabilitate turtles that suffered injuries — such as ingesting a foreign object, boat strikes and snagged with fishing hooks — and return them back to the wild.
“During my volunteer training with N.E.S.T., I learned how to identify different species of sea turtles and how to write a stranded sea turtle report,” Felicity says. “I plan to use this if I am ever walking down the beach or driving down the road and find a stranded sea turtle. This way I can call in help to save them.”
Five different types of sea turtle come ashore to lay eggs on Outer Banks beaches: Kemp’s Ridley, loggerhead, the rare Hawksbill, green, and the largest species, leatherback turtles.
The incoming sixth-grader says she’s never actually seen a sea turtle nest hatch, “but I’ve seen photos. You just watch these tiny baby sea turtles either make it to the sea, or get picked up by raccoons and albatross.”
It’s a tough life for the little ones: After the mother turtle constructs a body pit in the dry sand, digs an egg chamber and lays the eggs — up to 120 of them — she packs the sand down over the top, and then begins using her front flippers to refill the body pit and disguise the nest. Once the ritual is done, she heads back to the ocean, leaving her eggs — and the hatchlings within — to survive on their own. Once a female has left her nest, she never returns to tend it.
The eggs incubate in the sun-warmed sand for approximately 60 days, and it’s a long two months, fraught with dangers: An estimated one out every 1,000 hatchings survives to maturity.
Even the hatchlings who defy the odds in the nest, or while scurrying out of it, are at risk.
If they don’t make it to the ocean quickly, many hatchlings will be caught by predators, like birds and crabs, or die of dehydration in the sun. Once in the water, they typically swim several miles off shore, where they can be caught in currents and seaweed, get picked off by sharks and big fish — or die after becoming ensnared in a plastic 6-pack ring, or accidentally ingesting plastic bags and deflated balloons, which it mistakes for a jellyfish.
It’s slow and painful death.
Plastic causes blockages or ruptures the turtle’s digestive tracts, impeding their ability to swim and dive for food. Eventually, the sea turtle slowly starves, and unless humans intervene to remove the plastic, it will die an agonizing death.
Felicity says it’s imperative that people do whatever they can do to help sea turtles, “because they balance the world’s ecosystems by controlling the amount of jellyfish and seagrass the ocean contains.”
At the very least, she says, people should refrain from using plastic bags or releasing balloons into the sky — even for a happy occasion, like a beach wedding, or as part of a memorial service for a lost loved one.
“Plastic bags should not even be used at all. They can be replaced by a paper bag,” she says. “Balloons filled with helium rise into the atmosphere, deflate, fall back to Earth’s surface, and harm wildlife.”
Felicity says she and a group of her friends are involved in outreach efforts to educate peers about the positive impact sea turtles have on the environment — and she isn’t afraid to step up, speak out and help educate adults who need a reminder that the beaches and the oceans are not just a playground for people: They are home to important marine life, and we all need to respect that fact.
“If someone were to drop fishing line or trash on the beach, I would say to them, ‘Please pick that up. You don’t want to harm the sea turtles, do you?’” she says.
“If someone ever thinks about someone else’s words, they may see the commonsense, and change their mind.”