By Russ Lay | Outer Banks Voice on June 13, 2021
Sea turtles rank right up there with dolphins, porpoises and whales in the galaxy of sea creatures that capture our interests and even our hearts, particularly when it comes to their survival.
When sea turtles are in need of a helping hand from their human friends, Amber Hitt is a name you’ve likely encountered in our local media. She’s the manager of the STAR (Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation) Center at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.
STAR opened in 2014, and Hitt came on board as director in 2017. Possessed of an easy smile and laugh, Hitt brims with enthusiasm when the subject of sea turtles is broached. As one who is often quoted in local media stories, Hitt avoids the limelight at other times and seemed a perfect fit for a ‘Getting to Know’ article. (This interview is edited for space.)
Let’s get started.
A: At the STAR Center, we bring in sick and injured sea turtles. We work with the Network of Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST) from the Corolla beaches all the way down to Ocracoke, as well as the National Park Service, which gets to areas our volunteers cannot. We also help the Park Service with nesting supplies and materials during that season.
A: This is one of my most favorite questions! When I was really little, I always wanted to work with dolphins. It was something about the ocean marine life. I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, so I’ve always been really close to the ocean and water.
A: Ocean City and Assateague. My family would always drive onto the beach at Assateague, and we would spend almost of all our beach time there. I won’t lie, we would go to Ocean City mainly for the French fries and the boardwalk!
A: Yes. My family has been coming down here since I was knee high, especially for the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club surf fishing tournament, where my family always had a team entered.
When I was young, we went to Sea World and I did their Dolphin Interaction Program. I got to work alongside a trainer for the day and one of my questions was “How do I get into this field?” They told me it was really hard, that people in this field aren’t in it for the money and they loved the work and uncertainty. That made me a bit uncertain, so I went into college with a backup plan — to learn and teach my second passion, which is psychology. So, I actually have a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in post-secondary education.
I also know that East Carolina University does a lot with CSI and research here in the Outer Banks – that is my alma mater. Always a Pirate at heart! Perhaps that is what drew me to the Outer Banks as well.
A: I was on track to be teaching psychology and while getting my master’s, I actually got an internship with the local zoo in Salisbury, Maryland. After that I received an internship with the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and that is where this career started.
I worked there for almost ten years, including my internship. I started out with their education animals — snakes, lizards, turtles, and then I got into their rescue and rehab with turtles and seals.
A: At the time my then- fiancée and I were living in Baltimore. We had always talked about living at the beach. My husband is very much a city boy (laughs). He would drive a great distance to get to the beach while I had always been right there growing up…and when this job popped up, it sounded perfect, right up my alley. I took an interview, got the job, and moved us down here.
A: In my spare time, besides fishing and just simply enjoying the beach, we paddle board and jet ski with some of my volunteers in Colington Harbor and within the sound. We love hitting up Fishheads and Jack Brown’s for the food, ambiance and live music.
We try to indulge ourselves in the various art shows/farmers markets between KDH and Manteo, my husband and I started playing rec softball with a team of friends and co-workers, and we try to attend as many soundside events as we can whether it be the Fun Fair, food festivals, or other festivities.
A: Lots of good food here, we have such great seafood. My husband and I are thinking about making this giant chalkboard wall in our house so when our guests come over and say, “We want crab cakes, where should we go? or a burger?” As I mentioned we like Jack Brown’s, great burger choices, great live music and they do a lot of community events. Pigman’s for BBQ, Top [Palmer, co-owner] actually volunteers here and always checks in our sea turtles. And crab cakes, being from Maryland, the best crab cake so far, and I promise I haven’t tried them all —Salt Box is my favorite. They broil them, not fry them, lump crab meat, no filler. Just what you want!
A: There’s quite a few ways we’re trying to get some things done. It’s a little more difficult here in that we have to go to each town since each town governs their beaches a little differently, there’s not one single authority. So we have to reach out to many different places! One of the big things in the summer for nesting and hatchlings would be the lighting on the beach. Just changing to red lighting, which is safe and throws out a lot of light would help turtles avoid confusion when they hatch by following incorrect lighting and moving away from the ocean.
Another issue that’s different in every town concerns items left on the beach overnight. We try to get notices posted in hotels and rental houses about lighting and these overnight objects. When a sea turtle mom comes up at night, they don’t always see that string holding a tent down or know what a chair is. If they get entangled, they are so exhausted already, they often can’t disengage and stress out — leading to a call to us.
A: Being here I get to dabble. I help feed the big alligators. I just dove in the shark exhibit this morning. It breaks up our routine and you get to know the other animals. Currently, I am helping train our new female otter and introducing here to the boys right now. She’s very vocal about that!
A: Between the state, the NC Aquarium Society and NEST, we have brought something to the area which people don’t really get to see. I think it’s really cool and one of the reasons this job appealed to me.
I was used to doing public outreach and talking about what we do. But it’s another thing to have guests come into your rehabilitation space and watch what we do. I can have a sea turtle in the middle of surgery and folks come in and see what we’re doing, and we can talk about it. So you get this instant connection with wildlife, show what we’re doing, and why it’s important. I think that’s a big deal.
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