St. Michael students get noticed thanks to turtle-saving project

GARDEN CITY — Three teens from St. Michael School are striking a tough environmental pose to protect endangered turtles, a move which could win them a $36,000 U.S. Savings Bond in the Christopher Columbus Award’s National Championship June 20-26.

Alex Musgrove, Christian Mateo and Alex Stead are focused on protecting endangered sea turtles and baby hatchlings, creating a screen to filter out the artificial light on the oceanfront. Baby turtles’ instinct urges them to follow the light from their place of birth in the sand to the ocean. Other creatures eat them, and they are run over by vehicles when they get lost, and mixed up by the manmade light at area hotels and development.

The trio got involved in the daring project Ripleys Aquarium Marine Science Camp in Myrtle Beach, according to their principal, Sister Roberta Thoen, a Sister of St. Mary Namur.

“They did a presentation, and they suddenly heard that they had placed in the top 30,” she said. They are now in the top 10 and can win $36,000 toward their education and $25,000 to implement the program.

“I am proud of them,” said Sister Thoen. “They are role models for our children in the school.”

The seventh graders’ former camp director, Michelle Ruthenberg, had helped conduct research on turtle migration and laws through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She taught physical education at the school and approached Musgrove about the competition. Musgrove convinced his friends to cooperate.

“A bunch of people come together,” said Mateo. “They try to get kids like us to come together and make ideas to help save or better their community. So we got together, and we got our idea together.”

“The turtles were not making it to the ocean, so we thought of the screen to block them from going in the opposite direction and make them go toward the ocean,” explained Stead.

The main turtle in question is the endangered Loggerhead turtle.

“The turtles, whenever they come up to nest, they follow the light,” said Musgrove. “They’ll usually follow the moonlight. Well due to artificial light on the beach from the beach, they will go back, and they will get run over by the cars. That’s what’s causing them trouble. …I think we should not build as much on the beach any more than we have.”

The six species of sea turtles in the United States are protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the creatures already are facing mortality challenges with the nets that trap them, condemning them to a death sentence for Nemo worse than any S.C. judge could administer if it were not for requirements for the new Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs).

The teens were interviewed on “Southern Styles,” a television talk show on TIME-Warner Cable, so their publicity campaign is progressing well. WBTW TV-13 also interviewed the trio.

The local team has won a free trip to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla. for the award ceremonies. The three top national winners get $36,000 in U.S. Savings Bonds, and one team will get the $25,000 Columbus Foundation Community Grant to implement its idea.

Sister Thoen received a letter May 2 from Judith M. Shellenberger, executive director of the foundation. She wrote: “These students did an excellent job in preparing its project for the competition, and I wish them the best of luck at National Championship week.”