Callie Veelenturf with a Pacific leatherback while she was working on her master’s thesis under the Bioko Marine Turtle Program. (Photo: Jonah Reenders)

Olema, CA — For the first time ever, Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN), a global marine conservation nonprofit, has offered a scholarship to an early career marine conservationist for its yearly Cocos Island Expedition.

The scholarship was offered to Callie Veelenturf, a recent graduate of Purdue University. She will participate on a 10-day shark and sea turtle tagging expedition to Cocos Island National Park off the coast of Costa Rica in early December.

TIRN received over 110 applications from around the world ranging from students to early professionals in the marine conservation field. The first place winner was chosen by six volunteer reviewers who worked in the fields of marine biology, environmental education and law.

“It was important for us to offer this scholarship to someone just starting out in the marine conservation field who wouldn’t have been able to participate in an opportunity like this without financial support,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of TIRN. “This scholarship was made available primarily through a generous donation from one of our citizen scientists, Deborah Kearney, who has participated on six expeditions to date.”

Veelenturf recently received her Masters of Science in Biology from Purdue University studying the impacts of climate change on sea turtle nesting beaches on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. She is currently working to protect critically endangered East Pacific leatherback turtles at Costa Rica’s primary nesting site.

“Due to the devastation of the critically endangered Eastern Pacific Leatherback sea turtle subpopulation, a half-season that should contain tens of adult female nesters, contained only one,” read her application letter. “My goal is to spend my life conserving endangered species and more specifically working on the frontlines of bycatch, illegal trade, poaching, and sea turtle research.”

“I am so grateful and incredibly excited,” said Veelenturf upon learning that she was the scholarship winner. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Second place candidate, John Swenson, also received the scholarship. Honorable mentions include Tiffany Dawson, Mahatub Khan Badhon, Carmen Candal and Karen Boswarva.

“All of these candidates were outstanding and choosing between them was extremely difficult,” commented one of the anonymous reviewers.

Veelenturf, a PADI Divemaster and Scientific Diver through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences, will join scientists and volunteers on a 10-day expedition to Cocos Island National Park, located 350 miles off the Costa Rican coast and halfway between Costa Rica and Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. This remote island was described by Jacques Cousteau as the most beautiful island in the world and is the only island in the eastern Pacific Ocean that has a tropical rainforest and cloud forest covered peaks that reach 2,000 feet.

Cocos Island temporarily hosts a variety of highly migratory species. It is known as the “Island of the Sharks” due to large schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks, white-tip reef sharks, tiger sharks, Galapagos sharks and others. Green and hawksbill turtles also reside in the waters surrounding Cocos, as well as leatherback and olive ridley turtles who migrate through it.

The expedition in early December will concentrate on acoustic and satellite tagging and collecting tissue samples from sharks and turtles, and will collect photographic data for a hammerhead photo identification project currently underway.

The scholarship covers the actual cost expedition aboard the Argos, a 130-foot vessel with full global reach, as well as all food, lodging, rental equipment and Nitrox certification.

“We are grateful to our funders, the UnderSea Hunter Group who will provide dive equipment for the winner,” said Steiner. “We want to thank everyone who provided letters of recommendation for the applicants, and especially the applicants themselves and our anonymous reviewers for their time to make this opportunity possible.”