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Family legacy of ocean conservation

Posted: October 30, 2011 - 12:03am
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Susan Murray, Senior Director of the Oceana's Pacific offices, stands with her award, photos of her hero and late grandmother, Eleanor Fletcher, as well as art by Fletcher. Murray comments that there is a beautiful symmetry to finding herself working in ocean conservation as her grandmother had.  William Race
William Race
Susan Murray, Senior Director of the Oceana's Pacific offices, stands with her award, photos of her hero and late grandmother, Eleanor Fletcher, as well as art by Fletcher. Murray comments that there is a beautiful symmetry to finding herself working in ocean conservation as her grandmother had.

Following a career path that has been serendipitous and fulfilling, Susan Murray, senior director of the Pacific offices of Oceana, returned Wednesday from a trip to Juno Beach, Fla., where she received the Blue Friend of the Year award from the Loggerhead Marinelife Center. Murray joined Oceana in 2003, two years after the organization formed and one year after it set up Pacific headquarters in Juneau, but she has had close ties to ocean conservation since childhood.

In her teen years, Murray had the opportunity to spend summers in Juno Beach with her grandmother, who was fondly known as “The Turtle Lady.” For a teenager, it was a dream; they would sleep until noon, sunbathe during the day and at night they would take to the beaches with flashlights to search for loggerhead turtle nests until 3 a.m.

Murray’s grandmother, Eleanor Fletcher, noticed an abundance of turtle nests on the beach near her house and developed an interest in them in the late 1960s. Out of this curiosity alone, Fletcher began tracking turtles, counting nests, and learning about their lives and habitat. She became an advocate and savior of turtles.

Through her studies, Fletcher educated residents about turtles, from children she allowed into her home, to homeowners and policy makers. Juno Beach residents now turn off their lights at night so the turtles can follow the white-peaked waves of the ocean to safety, as nature had intended, rather than being confused by the artificial lights.

Murray has vivid recollections from her youth of saving turtles from a condo swimming pool, where lights had drawn turtles away from the ocean or finding loggerhead nests and removing the eggs before poachers could, leaving golf balls in place of the eggs, as well as a note reading, “Arnold Palmer was my father.” Sure enough, the next day the golf balls were strewn about the beach, proof that they had saved the soon-to-hatch turtles. They would host public releases of the hatched turtles at night when the sand was cool.

Murray also recalls defrosting anything from the freezer could be dangerous, as it could be a roast or, just as easily, a dead armadillo her grandmother was saving for taxidermy. Fletcher’s home drew in children with all its wonders: a turtle might inhabit the bathtub or there could be injured birds recovering in the living room. Fletcher dedicated her life to the local wildlife and the local children. What she began in her home has become the Loggerhead Marinelife Center.

And Fletcher’s legacy doesn’t end there, Murray has found herself advocating for the oceans as well, so many years later.

“There’s karma and a certain symmetry to ending my career with ocean conservation in a much colder Juneau,” said Murray, who still has many years left in her career, but with such passion for ocean conservation, she said she couldn’t imagine doing anything else now, “it’s a tremendous privilege to have that connection with my grandma.”

What she learned in her youth has greatly influenced and inspired Murray today. While ocean conservation today is very much focused on broad policy changes, she still marvels at how one person can make a real difference, as her grandmother had.

“What one person does matters. And caring about the oceans matters. You can’t just leave it to itself. People believe [the ocean] is so vast they can’t damage it.” Murray has seen changes in ocean ecology and coastal regions in her lifetime, but remains optimistic, “As much as we have the capacity to damage, we also have the capacity to protect.”

While Murray may share a love of turtles and marine life with her late grandmother, she is also dedicated to conservation for the sake of her children.

“My greatest job is as a mother,” explained Murray, “we have to think of what we are leaving them. I want them to have the same opportunities I had. I want them to be able to catch a salmon, see a whale, see turtles.”

To learn more about the Loggerhead Marinelife Center and the Blue Friend awards, visit www.marinelife.org and to learn more about Oceana, visit oceana.org

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