In honor of World Sea Turtle Day on June 16, we’re celebrating our SCA alums who were inspired to protect this special creature through their service at the Student Conservation Association.

Matthew Botello grew up hunting, fishing and exploring the outdoors alongside his family in Corpus Christi, Texas. One of the perks of living near the Gulf of Mexico was being able to attend the annual sea turtle releases at Padre Island National Seashore since he was six.

Rather than just watching turtle hatchlings scurry their way into the water, he is now a part of the team tasked with their survival. Botello is one of four SCA Sea Turtle Recovery Interns responsible for assisting National Park Service staff save the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle species from extinction. 

“There are no words for me to explain this experience,” Botello said before heading out for a night shift. “This whole job has changed me. In a way, you grow with the program and the turtles.”

Botello, 23, always planned to become a game warden like several of his uncles after earning a degree in criminal justice. However, since working with sea turtles, he now wants to become a park ranger.

A person in gloves on a beach guides sea turtles to the ocean.

Former SCA Sea Turtle Recovery Intern Matthew Botello

“I thought becoming a game warden was my calling. But now, I want to work with wildlife. This program has changed everything,” he said. “This work matters because it’s our responsibility to help. We can’t let a certain species die off. Every animal has its place in the ecosystem; if one thing changes, everything changes.” 

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the smallest and most critically endangered sea turtles in the world. SCA interns have been helping protect them since the late 1970s, following in the footsteps of the program’s legendary leader, Dr. Donna J. Shaver, chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery.

“I would never have known about this program if I had not joined the SCA back then. It changed my life without a doubt,” Shaver said. “We are an endangered species success story in the making, but we are not there yet and still have more work to do. What a remarkable opportunity to make a difference, and these interns are getting the same chance I had.”

While studying wildlife biology at Cornell University in 1980, Shaver came across an SCA ad on a campus bulletin board looking for sea turtle recovery volunteers at Padre Island National Seashore. Interested in endangered species, she decided to give it a try.

A person kneeling on the beach near sea turtles with a crowd of people behind them

SCA Alum Dr. Donna J. Shaver, NPS Chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery

“I came down being shy Donna from Syracuse, New York, never having seen the ocean or having worked with sea turtles,” she said. “It was feared back then that the species was lost. I decided right then that I would dedicate my life to saving the Kemp’s ridley turtle.”

Thanks to her research and commitment, the recovery program has helped bring the species back from the brink of extinction, with SCA interns contributing every step of the way.

“It’s definitely cemented what I want to do with wildlife conservation and that this is what I want to do with my future,” said intern Deanna Nottingham, 23, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, who graduated with a degree in biology last December. “The field of conservation gives you the opportunity to help the world around you versus just being in it. With the climate crisis, I feel everything is changing with so many species, and I want to be able to give them a leg up.”

During their time at the national seashore, the interns help conduct daytime and evening turtle patrols, gather eggs, assist with caring for the eggs and release sea turtle hatchlings.

“This program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve found my people here. They are so passionate and dedicated to the cause. I don’t think I’ve ever had a job that is this important,” said intern Taryn Moorhead, 27, of San Antonio, who is majoring in Environmental Science.The work truly is important, not only for the ecology and sustainability of the species but also for getting the public interested in how they can help. It’s awe-inspiring and very rewarding. If I could do this for the rest of my life, I really would.”

SCA members assist with protecting endangered and threatened wildlife all over the United States. You can help with a donation to the Student Conservation Association that will be matched, doubling your impact.


*Source: National Park Service,