Originally published at Sentinel & Enterprise News.
ASHBURNHAM -- At a beach in Mexico, a wall of turtle shells and whale bones is all that remains of the animals that were trapped in nets set out by local fishermen in years gone by.
Oakmont Regional High School science teacher Alana Archangelo is among 13 educators selected from across the country to participate in a research trip aimed at ensuring that wall grows no bigger.
"Our data collection is going to go towards the scientists who are analyzing the turtle population to see whether fishing habits are impacting the turtle population," Archangelo said in her classroom on Wednesday.
Behind her, a tapestry adorned with a swimming sea turtle hangs on a wall. A tattoo of a turtle on her right wrist commemorates a trip she took with a group of students to the Galapagos Islands, the Ecuadorian province famous for its turtle population.
Archangelo leaves Friday for a five-day research trip run by the nonprofit Ecology Project International. She is bound for the Magdalena Bay, on the Baja peninsula's Pacific coast.
The purpose of the research trip is twofold: Building the participants' research skills so they can return home and transfer what they learned to their students.
Archangelo said she and her 12 colleagues, in between nights spent camping on the beach without electricity or running water, will measure, weigh and tag turtles that get caught in fishing nets.
"The turtles get tangled in the nets, and because they need to breathe air many of them end up drowning," Archangelo explained.
Researchers are trying to help fishermen grow accustomed to hauling up and checking their nets every two hours, a practice thought to significantly reduce the number of turtles killed.
"It's still a work in progress, because it's hard to change culture," she said.
Archangelo studied marine biology while in college at the Florida Institute of Technology, whereas a student she researched dolphins that became stuck in the Indian River, a lagoon in that state.
At the high school, she leads the student environmental club, the Oakmont Environmental Association. The award-winning student group has been recognized by Sen. Stephen Brewer and the United Way Youth Venture.
Years of advocacy preceded her fellowship, said Archangelo, who doesn't plan to stop. Recently, she said a student asked her for a plastic utensil during lunch, and the science teacher instead washed and handed over a metal spoon.
The goal of this year's Oakmont Environmental Associations' annual Green Week is to convince students not to use plastic straws, which are often discarded and found in the noses of sea turtles, said Archangelo.
Convincing students to skip the plastic straws is one small part of the conservation equation, she said. Archangelo wiped a glassy eye and made a pinching motion with her thumb and finger.
Traveling to Mexico to help track the sea turtle population, said Archangelo, is another.
"I'm just excited to play just that tiny role in saving turtles," she said.