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As partners at the Duke Marine Lab, we have spent the last six weeks collaborating with a variety of education and conservation organizations in the Down East community. Through this remarkable initiative, we have had the opportunity to engage with the local community, learning from a diverse group of community partners and gaining a deeper understanding of the way of life in the region. In this blog post, we wanted to share some of the partners, moments, and learning opportunities that have changed how we think about eastern coastal North Carolina.


A group of people looks at a man crouched down on the ground gesturing towards the sand
Jon Altman, a supervisory biologist at Cape Lookout, shows DukeEngage students how to identify a sea turtle nest.

“Working with Jon Altman and Matthew Godfrey from the National Park Service, I’ve learned so much about how a huge issue in coastal North Carolina is light pollution. Specifically, how it affects female sea turtles nesting, as well as hatchlings. Going into this program, I thought the main issue for sea turtles from North Carolina was plastic pollution. Although this is still very relevant, lights from buildings, campfires, and vehicles play a huge factor in negatively affecting sea turtle repopulation, and needs to be studied and addressed in the near future.”
– Jack Sanitate

Students in a museum look at a whale skeleton
DukeEngage Marine Lab students visit Bonehenge Whale Center to learn about North Carolina Cetaceans.

“I’ve been working for Karen Amspacher at Core Sound Waterfowl Museum on a project showing how Hurricane Florence affected the area and community. In conversation with Karen and research on Florence, the way the community supports each other and lifts each other up in times of need is special. The first responders were not people sent in by the government, instead they were fishers, church groups, and able residents from different towns traveling all over the place to ensure the well-being of their neighbors. People cooked meals for each other, rescued others on boats, and provided shelter for those whose homes were destroyed. I have also seen myself that there are conflicting views within the area on some heavy topics, but people refuse to let these differences divide them as a community. No matter what individuals believe in, their pride in where they come from allows them to come together with mutual respect for their backgrounds and homes, strengthening the community as a whole.”
– Jake Marrs

“Visiting Bonehenge Whale Center and realizing that my preconceived notion that plastic pollution was the only contributor to whale deaths was incorrect. Boat strikes are actually a cause for more than 33% of the whale deaths caused by humans.”
– Ian Connolly

“Working on the Coastal Carolina Riverwatch project and meeting with Lisa [Rider] and Riley [Lewis] and learning about the excessive amount of hog lagoons there are in eastern NC. This made me realize how water quality can be affected by hog farming and the importance of educating people on contaminants in their drinking water”
– Nisha Jakkinpali

Students pose under a tent, wearing blue t-shirts reading "Beaufort Music Festival."
DukeEngage students enjoy the Beaufort Music Festival, a local community-supported event.

“Volunteering at Beaufort Music Festival changed my previous belief that the community was small and wouldn’t necessarily welcome short-staying non-locals. It was also easy to work with the local government in small towns like Beaufort.”
– Jack Balint-Kurti

“When I got brunch with Karen [Amspacher]…I was caught by surprise when [she] said that she didn’t eat seafood from the restaurant. Despite the restaurant being close to the coast, she informed me that the majority of seafood consumed in NC is imported and is not caught locally. It demonstrated to me that she deeply cares about supporting her community, refusing to back unsustainable fishing practices.”
– Gabe Mendoza

Working in Beaufort had revealed to us the deep-rooted commitment to coastal conservation that permeates the region. We have had the opportunity to partner with incredible individuals who have dedicated their lives to protecting and preserving the Down East coastal ecosystem. Their passion for sustainability combined with the overwhelming support from the community at large has taught us the transformative power of collective action, where the strength and success of these partner organizations lies not only in the dedication of a few but in the collaboration and efforts of many.