Environmental and Sustainability Studies Student Gets Hands-On Learning Experience With Leatherback Turtles, Diving

By Richard LeComte

A scuba diver looks at a large sea turtle. Kristen Gould has dived – that is, scuba-dived -- into her studies of the environment. For the past three summers, Gould has pursued a summer program called Sprout Experience, which takes students to Caribbean shores for hands-on work with wildlife.

“Sprout is run by two teachers (Julie Milkie and Daniel Grigson) who have been traveling for a long time,” said Gould, a sophomore University of Kentucky student majoring in Environmental and Sustainability Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. “They began this program to take students across the world to do environmental education and cultural immersion trips which are very hands-on trips with researchers – they have a lot of connections.”

Gould, who’s from Avon Lake, Ohio, heard about the program at school and has continued with it as her UK studies began. The teachers who have run the program are based in a neighboring suburb.

“I’ve always had an interest in the environment,” she said. ‘’I wanted more travel experience, and luckily my parents were supportive.”

In summer 2017, Gould went with the Sprout Experience to Bonaire, where she became a certified scuba diver. In 2018 and 2019, the group went to Trinidad and Tobago, where they specialized in hands-on environmental projects as well as diving. She served in summer 2019 as an intern, helping a group of 14 students ages 13-18.

“We traveled to Tobago and stayed at a dive shop,” she said. “We scuba dived with some dive masters who work there. Some of the students were certified divers, and the rest weren’t, so we divided into two different groups. The more experienced group got to dive a little deeper and went on more adventurous dives than the other group. But they still got the whole experience of scuba diving.”

The hands-on environmental learning experiences included studying and helping leatherback sea turtles that nest on Matura Beach in Trinidad through a group called Nature Seekers. Gould found the large turtles a tad intimidating. They climb onto the beach to lay their eggs between 7:30 p.m. and 4 a.m.

“It’s a little scary at first because they’re huge – they’re the size of Smart Cars,” she said. “And they have these hugely powerful flippers. They could potentially break your leg. So, it’s a little intimidating when you go up to them at first.”

Much to Gould’s relief, however, during the laying process the turtles achieve a deep state of chill that lets researchers approach and study them.

“When we go up to them, they’re in this state where they don’t even pay attention to what’s going on around them, and they’re really interesting,” Gould said. “Researchers take all the measurements and tag the turtles, so they can track them.”

Kristen Gould looks at a sign for a nature park. Once the turtles lay their eggs, Gould and the other students and helpers come to the aid of the baby turtles, who need to get out of their eggs, up from sand holes and out into the ocean. They’ll shine their flashlights onto the water to help guide the baby turtles, or they’ll even dig into the nests.

“The hatching all happens underground,” she said. “"Almost all of the turtles hatch at the same time, and they work together to climb out of the nests. They push down the sand with their flippers as they work their way up, leaving a small divot on the surface." 

“Oftentimes you’ll find little tracks in the sand from the babies. What we do is we find a nest, and we dig through the nest. Sometimes you’ll find a turtle that hatched later than the rest of the hatchlings and couldn’t get out. Those turtles will die because they can’t get out of the nest. So we dig and a lot of the times we find them and save them.”

One of the most hands-on experiences Gould had with these turtles – and their environment – was to help one poky turtle to hatch.

“I had a turtle hatch in my hand two summers ago, which is pretty awesome,” she said. “We were excavating a nest. We count the eggs and take numbers of how many are hatched how many of the eggs were not hatched. But sometimes you’ll find an egg and you’ll know there’s a live turtle in it, and you can help it out a tiny bit. “

This kind of direct, personal experience, which has dovetailed with her studies in the College of Arts & Sciences, has given Gould a much deeper appreciation of what she can do to bolster the environment.

“The biggest takeaway I found was how much of a difference one person can make,” she said. “When I think of environmental sustainability, I was thinking very, very broadly – in terms of the whole world. It’s really cool to see how a person who has an idea – something they love to do – can start a whole movement. “