Saving the Planet—One Turtle at a Time

Callie Veelenturf ’14

Callie Veelenturf on the beach working on leatherback nest excavation in Equatorial Guinea
Leatherback nest excavation in Equatorial Guinea. Excavating nests after the incubation period ends involves removing and opening all unhatched eggs and shells, and staging the sea turtle embryos. Veelenturf says, “It’s really interesting to see the different stages of development the sea turtles reached before growth stopped.”

Callie Veelenturf ’14 was nearing the end of a five-month sea turtle research project in Panama when the nation’s borders were closed due to the pandemic, forcing her to remain in the country for three months longer than planned. She had just completed her first project as a National Geographic Explorer, documenting nests of endangered sea turtles, investigating human interactions with the turtles, and educating residents about the threats turtles face.

The founder of The Leatherback Project, a sea turtle conservation organization, Veelenturf spent her unexpected additional time in Panama launching an international campaign for a universal declaration of the rights of nature, a concept similar to human rights but which states that every species of wildlife has the right to exist and persist without fear of extinction from human causes. Just two countries, Ecuador and Bolivia, recognize these rights in their constitutions, and Veelenturf aimed to encourage other countries to support the idea as well.

“It’s a concept that really resonated with me, and I think it needs to be the basis of the global change we need to see for the planet,” she says. “We must consider the planet and nature when planning future development.”

Within weeks, she connected with several lawyers, conservationists, and other advocates in Africa, Australia, and South America; met with the first lady of Panama; and worked with a Panamanian senator to draft legislation that is now before the country’s National Assembly. She also made a virtual presentation to the United Nations—her third time speaking to the global intergovernmental organization—to make her case on World Oceans Day.

It was a whirlwind of activity, but that’s nothing new for Veelenturf. She has already had a lifetime of experiences in just the last few years. She studied sea turtles in Costa Rica, Equatorial Guinea, and Saint Kitts; traveled in a deep-sea vehicle 700 feet below the ocean surface as part of a shark research expedition; won a photography contest sponsored by the journal Nature; was named a fellow of The Explorers Club; tagged hammerhead sharks with conservationists in Colombia; and launched a project to reduce fisheries bycatch of sharks and sea turtles in Ecuador, where she will return for six months beginning in January. And last summer she was selected for the National Geographic Society’s prestigious Early Career Leadership Program.

“I can’t believe all this is happening,” she says. “It’s like my dreams are coming true.” •

Todd McLeish

Photo: Courtesy Callie Veelenturf