Biology Professor’s Career Devoted to Studying, Rescuing Sea Turtles

Biology Professor’s Career Devoted to Studying, Rescuing Sea Turtles

The South Carolina Aquarium recently announced plans to construct a $5 million, state-of-the-art Sea Turtle Hospital that will help expand its efforts to rescue, rehabilitate and release threatened and endangered sea turtles.

The College of Charleston’s own Dave Owens, associate dean of the Graduate School and professor of Biology, has been closely involved with the aquarium’s sea turtle work since the attraction’s earliest days in 2000.

The College Today caught up with Owens to talk about his passion for sea turtles and his hopes for the new facility.


Q: How did you first become involved in rehabilitating sea turtles?

A: Even though I have always seen great educational and conservational value in turtle rehabilitation, I am not medically trained so I have always worked with veterinarians in my research, where I do use surgery, to see what is going on reproductively inside a turtle (very hard to tell otherwise).

Q: What are your hopes for the hospital expansion project and how do you plan to stay involved?

A: I have been a member of the Aquarium’s external Animal Care Committee since the beginning and have served as a consultant many times. My hopes for the growth of the Sea Turtle Hospital are that it will: 1. Continue to grow as a valuable educational force for sea turtle and coastal conservation. 2. Become a regional resource for saving injured sea turtles. 3. Grow its mission and capabilities as a medical training and research facility to improve clinical practices used around the world.

RELATED: Read more about plans for the South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital.

Owens-2-embedQ: What is your most memorable experience with sea turtles?

A: I have hundreds of turtle stories, just ask my students. My most memorable experience is probably my sabbatical on the Great Barrier Reef where my students, my family and several Australian colleagues used the turtle rodeo to capture and “work up” (including endoscopic surgery) more than 600 sea turtles including three different species. The purpose was a unique reproductive biology study. Some of the green turtles weighed more than 350 pounds.

Q: Where are we currently in the sea turtle nesting cycle?

A: The nesting cycle for our local loggerheads (the state reptile of South Carolina) has ended for this year, and the turtles are headed back to their foraging grounds, which range from the scallop beds off New Jersey to the Florida Keys. The same females will not come back for two to four years.

Owens-3-embedARTICLE: Read more about plans for the South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital.

Q: How are sea turtles doing overall as a species?

A: Most Atlantic species (there are six) seem to be improving after being dangerously low in the 1980s. In the Pacific, however, there are many truly critical conservation problems. Individual populations do seem to undergo wild swings in numbers of nesters, so this gives us pause as we try to figure out if problems like global climate change are causing it. For example, sea turtles have a surprising way of determining sex in the embryo, where the temperature of the nest and eggs determines if they will be male or female (no XY chromosomes). So cooler beaches produce more males and warmer beaches produce more females. What is curious and somewhat disconcerting is that we seem to be seeing a disproportionate number of females in studies around the world, including the study that the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has been doing for 14 years off our southeast coast. Some beaches are now producing nine females to one male. So if climate change is increasing beach temperatures, we may be seeing an unusual situation where only females may be produced in the not too distant future. Females are critical to the populations, obviously, but males are required as well.

Q: What can the rest of us do to help sea turtle populations?

A: As sea turtle populations begin to increase, boaters and anglers will be more likely to hit turtles with their propellers or catch them on hook and line. When turtles are known to inhabit an area, boaters should slow down and fishermen who hook a turtle should call SC-DNR and get the animal to a rehabilitation center such as the South Carolina Aquarium, where there are proven methods to safely remove the hook.

Q: What else would you like to add?

A: As I look back at my very rewarding career, much of which has been dedicated to studying turtles, I am both amazed at how much we have leaned and yet how much we still need to know to improve our ability to share this small planet with elegant species such as the sea turtles.

RELATED: Watch a video about undergraduate and graduate students doing marine research.