It was while snorkeling off the coast of Hawaii on her 18th birthday that Callie Veelenturf found her life’s work. She was following a fish when she saw a huge shadow on the coral reef in front of her. She looked up and saw a 500-pound green sea turtle a few feet away.
“It didn’t move and I didn’t move,” said Veelenturf. “We looked into each other’s eyes, and in that moment I knew what I was supposed to be doing.”
Now just 27, the Norfolk native is rapidly becoming a leader in the field of ocean conservation. Her accomplishments are lengthy, and she has won numerous awards for her research, all in a relatively short amount of time. She has traveled to Latin America, the Caribbean, and West Africa as a marine biologist, researcher, and volunteer, all in a quest to protect the earth’s oceans.
In April, she founded the Leatherback Project, a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of the leatherback sea turtle, a keystone species that plays a major role in the health of ocean ecosystems. The massive creatures, weighing between 500 and 2000 pounds, are critically endangered.
“They are the most incredible species,” explained Veelenturf. “They’ve been around 150 million years. They were here when the dinosaurs walked the earth. And now they are facing extinction because of human pressures. I think it’s a really powerful story.”
Veelenturf graduated from King Philip High School in 2010, and then went on to study marine biology, with a minor in wildlife and conservation biology, at the University of Rhode Island. She earned a master’s degree in biology at Purdue University in 2017.
In high school, she remembers her environmental science class as a place of impassioned discussion about climate change and pollution. The seeds of activism were taking root, although Veelenturf says she has always loved nature, even as a small child.
After college, Veelenturf worked for a time at a wildlife refuge in Costa Rica. During her second night on the job, she witnessed a leatherback sea turtle lay her eggs on the sand and then return to the sea.
“I just remember crying as we sat there and listened to her breathing,” Veelenturf said. “She was absolutely massive and she sounded like I imagine a dinosaur sounded. Leatherbacks haul their bodies up onto the sand during the night, lay their eggs, and then go back into the water. It’s a mysterious, beautiful process.”
That encounter was the only time Veelenturf saw a leatherback sea turtle while in Costa Rica.
“Normally I should have seen several during the three months I was there,” she said. “But because they are critically endangered, I only saw one. I felt I was personally witnessing the disappearance of the species for a reason. And I felt a responsibility to do something about it.”
The main threats to the survival of the leatherback sea turtle are fisheries bycatch, plastic pollution, and climate change. By focusing on the sea turtle—its population has declined 90% since the 1980s--Veelenturf hopes she can draw attention to ocean conservation and the threats facing the ocean and its inhabitants.
The Leatherback Project is funded by grants and private donations. National Geographic has funded the organization’s first project, in Panama. Veelenturf and her team will travel there this month to study leatherback turtle nesting grounds in the Pearl Islands and investigate reports of poaching and human use of sea turtles for food.
“We’ll be living in tents right near the beach for five months,” she explained. “It’s going to be interesting because it’s fairly exploratory. We don’t know what we’re going to find and that makes it very exciting.”
As a National Geographic grant recipient, Veelenturf has earned the designation of National Geographic Explorer. She’s also been named a Fellow (the highest level) of the Explorers Club, an international professional society promoting scientific exploration and field study. She’s in lofty company indeed—Jane Goodall is a member, as is Sylvia Earle. Sir Edmund Hillary and Charles Lindbergh were members, also.
Veelenturf is applying to PhD programs and hopes to work in the field as a research conservationist with a goal of influencing policy through activism and outreach.
This past March, Veelenturf spoke before the U.N. as a Youth for Wildlife Conservation ambassador, a global network of early-career conservationists. She counts this experience as one of her greatest honors to date.
In her speech, Veelenturf noted, “It’s our job as youth to bring a lack of complacency and urgency to the table, to raise our voices and be the boots on the ground, daring to go to remote places and implement conservation strategies. It’s our job to get involved and make our voices heard because people will listen.”
If anyone is going to save the planet, it’s clear it will be young leaders like Veelenturf who believe the time is at hand for radical action. She points to Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist, as a bellwether of her generation’s perspective around the issues of climate change.
“The clock is ticking and it’s become a black and white issue,” emphasized Veelenturf. “Whether it’s climate change or ocean wildlife conservation, we’re running out of time, regardless of what’s feasible or convenient.”
For more information about the Leatherback Project, visit www.leatherbackproject.org or follow the group on Facebook (The Leatherback Project).