By: Tiffany King
October 9, 2019

Finding Her Compassion for Sea Creatures

By Tiffany King

When Sarah Buckley began taking classes at the College of Coastal Georgia in 2015, she thought predicting weather patterns was in the forecast for her future. It only took one moment for her to leave meteorology behind and chase after a career caring for sea creatures.

A military kid whose family eventually settled in Thomasville, Georgia, Buckley originally enrolled at Coastal Georgia to earn some credits before transferring to the Florida Institute of Technology to study meteorology. During her freshman year, she volunteered at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. One day a procedure was being done by Dr. Terry Norton, the lead veterinarian and founder of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Buckley went back towards the procedure area to learn more about the sea turtle to inform visitors, and what she saw changed her life.

“I was enthralled by what he was doing and he let me stay and see the whole thing. They were doing some wound cleaning, bandage changing. I said, ‘This is the coolest thing! This is what I want to do.’ So then I started doing it,” she said laughing.

She knew then that she wanted a career caring for sea creatures—in particular sea turtles—and changed from pursuing an Associate Degree for transfer to pursing a degree in Biology at the College.

Sarah Buckley monitors a sea turtles done under permitted research MTP143. (Photo provided by Sarah Buckley)

Buckley graduated from the College this past May, earning a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology with a concentration in Coastal Ecology. She is now a Protected Species Observer, working on dredge boats to monitor marine life and help protect some of the planet’s most endangered species. Buckley observes dredging companies and mitigates impacts on the environment due to their operations.

“If we spot something, we have [the vessel] shut down production until the animal is safely out of the area,” she said. “If we have to bring an animal aboard because of an injury, we, as the Protected Species Observers, have to take care of that animal until it’s improved or goes to a rehabilitation center.”

Buckley’s favorite classes at Coastal Georgia were the ones she had with Dr. David Stasek, associate professor of biology, and Dr. James Deemy, assistant professor of environmental science. Most of her upper level courses were with Stasek, which she described as some of the hardest in the biology department.

“He’s one of those professors that, if you have a question, you can go sit in his office and ask questions,” she said. They had a running joke that she lived in his office because she was there so much. “Dr. Stasek was so great about it. He was so helpful and he really wants you to succeed.”

Buckley did independent research with Deemy, which solidified her love for sea turtles. Buckley fondly remembers a field course Deemy instructed during a January mini-mester in 2018. Her biology class spent a week on Sapelo Island at the University of Georgia Marine Institute.

“We were looking at island ecology and it was freezing that year. It had managed to snow and the snow stuck. It was like 20 degrees outside and there we were on the beach and forest looking for birds. It was probably my favorite class I’ve taken at the College,” she said.

Students braced the cold and explored the island, helping them form a bond that still continues to this day. Buckley talked of going out at night with her classmates “owl howling” on Sapelo, with owls flying overhead answering their calls. That course provided a true field experience, Buckley said, that biology students can’t get in a classroom.

Buckley also cherished her time on campus as a resident assistant and working with Residence Hall Director Michael Woodbury.

“Being an RA is probably one of the hardest jobs on campus, but Michael made sure we had everything we needed. He really made sure we were taken care of because our first job is being a student,” she said. “The community in the dorms is really great. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to do that job.”

Buckley was also a student worker in the Center for Service-Learning, helping to plan events and taking on other duties at the center. She called Cody Cocchi, associate director of Service Learning, one of the best bosses she’s had. When her upper-level courses were difficult, Cocchi encouraged her to take time off from work to study and prepare.

“It was such a great experience and it’s what I really needed my senior year.,” she said. “I loved working with him and Dr. (Kimberly) Mannahan (Director of Service Learning and Undergraduate Research and Associate Professor of Psychology).”

Finding Her Niche

During junior year, Buckley spent a summer in Yulee, Florida interning at the White Oak Conservation to broaden her interests. Her class had previously visited the conservation, which led to her applying for an internship.

“I really wanted a different experience—to see if working with land mammals was something I was interested in and also gain more experience in my field,” she said. Buckley worked with all sorts of animals such as rhinos, giraffes, antelopes, and okapis. She realized the sea creatures were her calling. “Land mammals are great but sea turtles are definitely my speed.”

Her hunger to gain more experience and knowledge didn’t stop after graduation. Buckley spent the summer of 2019 interning at Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve doing sea turtle nesting surveys in the panhandle of Florida. The reserve recorded 437 loggerhead and green sea turtle nests.

“I got to see the nesting moms, we took samples of the nests, tested what’s living on the shells, and saw the hatchlings,” Buckley said. “They are so small when they’re first born,” she said.

Buckley could have continued her internship into October but she was offered a position as a Protected Species Observer with Coastwise Consulting, Inc. based in Athens. Life on the dredging boats has been quite interesting for Buckley. Dredging operations continue 24 hours a day, therefore Buckley and another observer work seven days a week with 12 hour shifts—from midnight to noon or noon to midnight. She spends three weeks on a dredging boat and then three weeks off. The companies she monitors are usually government funded and Buckley acts as a non-biased party, making sure everything runs smoothly. Depending on where and when she is sent to live on a dredging boat, Buckley will monitor different marine life.

The College played a vital role in helping Buckley set her heart on her chosen career.

“When you become a Protected Species Observer, your credentials have to go before a National Marine Fishery Service committee under NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration). Things like my independent research and internships really showed them that I had enough experience and was ready,” she said.

Buckley used her time at the College strategically. She selected elective courses that related to her future career and would expand her knowledge, such as parasitology, and vertebrae and natural history. She submitted her resume to the committee that listed all of her relevant courses, internships, and research. Though the process was nerve-racking, she was ultimately approved.

Buckley found her major by branching out and “testing the waters.” She recommends for other students to do the same.

“I recommend that people get as much experience as they can. Whether or not you think it might be something you want to do. At White Oak, I wasn’t really sure about working with land mammals but it gave me great experience and showed me the direction I wanted to go in, which is just as important,” she said. “I went to volunteer at the Sea Turtle Center and I had that moment. Branching out and trying different things is the best advice I can give. It can help you find your spot.”

As for the future, Buckley is currently focusing on the present. She’s truly loving her job and the travel.

“I think one day I’d like to go back to rehabilitation, but I really like what I’m doing now. I get to live out on a boat. It’s a new adventure and a great experience. I’m enjoying my time,” she said.