A version of this story appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Uncommon Path.
Allie Bernstein loves turtles. And for their part, it seems the sea turtles she encounters love her. In her nine-year career at the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet, Florida, Allie estimates that she’s had a role in rescuing, rehabilitating and returning thousands of them. But though the self-described “turtle lady” has always had a heart for the animals, she’s taken a bit of a circuitous path to get to her current post.
Allie grew up in the small town of Fishkill, New York. And though she scored a hospital assistant position at a local veterinary clinic at age 16, she didn’t have much exposure to marine life, save for family trips to Daytona Beach, Florida. But those yearly vacations would prove to be the catalyst to her career.
While her parents and two siblings basked in the sun and frolicked in the sand, the then-teenage Allie would hang out at the Marine Science Center. “I didn’t want to do any of that,” Allie laughs. “So my parents would drop me off at the Center, and I’d sit and watch the turtles for hours while they did whatever they wanted to do.” Based in Ponce Inlet, about 10 miles south of Daytona Beach, the Marine Science Center specializes in marine education and outreach, along with the unique combination of sea turtle and seabird rehabilitation. Allie was hooked.
She didn’t realize it at the time, but Allie’s hours spent watching the turtles were only the beginning of her experience with the Marine Science Center. After graduating from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania with a degree in environmental studies, she contacted the Center and asked if there were any post-grad internships.
“They told me I could volunteer for the summer and call it an internship,” Allie remembers. So, she did, and after three months learning the ins and outs of the Center, she accepted a part-time position in 2010. “I moved across the country and didn’t even have a full-time job!” she says.
To start, Allie nabbed various volunteer roles conducting nesting surveys and assisting the Marine Mammal Stranding Team, which rescues and rehabilitates beached or abandoned animals. Throughout the process, Allie realized her passion centered on medicine, so she went back to school to become a certified veterinary technician. “I knew I wasn’t the type of person to be at a microscope all day, but I love medicine,” she says. “I love being able to fix the turtles and nurture and empathize with them as their nurse.”
She became the full-time assistant manager at the Center in 2017. Two years later, she was promoted to manager of sea turtle rehabilitation. “I’ve never met anyone that has worked so hard to carve out a career path in something she loves,” says Chad Macfie, manager at the Marine Science Center. “You’d have a hard time finding anyone as dedicated as she is to conserving sea turtles and tortoises.”
Now one of the top vet techs at the operation, Allie spends most of her days inside the facility, recuperating and rehabbing the turtles. It often isn’t glamorous—she stuffs fish with vitamins and oral medication before feeding the turtles—or easy work. Some days begin whenever the 24-hour stranding phone rings, and others involve lifesaving turtle surgery. But each day is brightened by the ones when she sends a turtle back into the ocean.
“Once a turtle has recovered, I get to release it into the breeding population, which is the most rewarding experience,” Allie says. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
Allie’s Tools of the Trade
“Summer days in the field are rainy, and I like to protect my clothes from muck when I need to pick up a turtle.” $89.95
“I’m in and out of water all day, so I need shoes that drain and dry quickly.” $109.95
“I love that I help future generations of sea turtles.” –Allie Bernstein
“Bigger turtles don’t fit in the totes, so we use a pool for those guys.”
“So versatile. I use this for everything from cutting boxes and ropes to picking barnacles off a turtle.” $99.95
“This one’s just for me. I jog to get out and clear my head.” $200
“It would break my heart if my niece or future generations didn’t have these guys around. They overcome so much to be that one turtle that makes it, and that is so unique and strong.” –Allie Bernstein
“In colder weather, I cover pools to keep the wind chill off the turtles.”
“We transport and dry-dock turtles in totes until they are ready for water.”
“Our staff monitors patients’ weights to make diet adjustments accordingly. We check them twice per week.”
All photography by Jon Middelstaedt. Find more gear recommendations from Uncommon Path.