S.ea turtles are high up with dolphins, porpoises and whales in the galaxy of marine life that conquer our interests and even our hearts, especially when it comes to their survival.
If sea turtles need help from their human friends, Amber Hitt is a name you have likely come across on our local media. She is 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. With a slight smile and laughter, Hitt bursts with enthusiasm when the topic of sea turtles is brought up. As one who is often quoted in local media reports, Hitt shuns the limelight at other times and seemed a perfect fit for a get-to-know article. (This interview has been edited for reasons of space.)
Q: We’ll start with a brief description of what the STAR Center does.
A: We bring sick and injured sea turtles to the STAR Center. We partner with the Network of Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST) from Corolla Beaches all the way down to Ocracoke, as well as the National Park Service, which reaches areas our volunteers cannot reach. We’ll also help valet parking with nesting supplies and supplies during this season.
Q; How did you hear about sea turtles?
A: This is one of my favorite questions! When I was very little I always wanted to work with dolphins. It was about marine life in the ocean. I grew up on the east coast of Maryland, so I’ve always been very close to the ocean and water.
Q: What beaches did your local beaches grow up on?
A: Ocean City and Assateague. My family used to go to Assateague Beach, and we spent almost all of our beach time there. I’m not going to lie, we’d go to Ocean City mainly for the fries and boardwalk!
Q: Did you have any connection with this area before moving here with STAR?
A: Yes. My family has been coming here since I was knee high, especially for the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club surf fishing tournament where my family always had a team.
When I was young we went to Sea World and I did their Dolphin Interaction Program. I got to work alongside a coach for a day and one of my questions was, “How do I get into this field?” They told me it was really difficult that people in this field weren’t there for the money and they were Love work and uncertainty. That made me a little insecure, so I went to college with a backup plan – to learn and teach my second passion, psychology. So I actually have a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in post-secondary education.
I also know that East Carolina University does a lot of CSI and research here in the Outer Banks – that’s my alma mater. Always a pirate at heart! Maybe that’s what brought me to the Outer Banks too.
Q: This is a different path than many in your field. What brought you back to the finish line?
A: I was well on my way to teaching psychology and while I was doing my Masters I actually got an internship at the local zoo in Salisbury, Maryland. Then I did an internship at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and that’s where my career began.
I worked there for almost ten years, including my internship. I started with their training animals – snakes, lizards, turtles, and then I came to their rescue and rehab with turtles and seals.
Q: And now you are here as the manager of the STAR Center. How did that happen?
A: At the time, my then-fiancée and I lived in Baltimore. We’d always talked about living on the beach. My husband is a big city boy (laughs). He drove a long distance to get to the beach while I was always there when I grew up … and when that job came up it sounded perfect, right down my alley. I did an interview, got the job and moved here.
Q: What will Amber do when you’re not dealing with the turtles?
A: In my free time, besides fishing and just enjoying the beach, paddling and jet skiing with some of my volunteers in Colington Harbor and the Sound. We love to visit Fishheads and Jack Brown’s for the food, ambience and live music.
We try to pamper ourselves in the various art exhibitions / farmers markets between KDH and Manteo, my husband and I started playing rec softball with a team of friends and colleagues and we try to go to as many soundside events as possible , regardless of whether it is the fair, food festivals or other festivities.
Q: Any favorite places?
A: Lots of good food here, we have such great seafood. My husband and I are thinking about building this huge blackboard wall in our home. When our guests come by and say, “We want crab cakes, where should we go? or a burger? ”As I mentioned earlier, we like Jack Brown’s, great burger selection, great live music, and they host a lot of community events. Pigman’s for grilling, top [Palmer, co-owner] actually works here on a voluntary basis and always checks in our sea turtles. And Maryland crab cakes, the best crab cakes yet, and I promise I haven’t tried all of them – Salt Box is my favorite. They grill them, don’t fry them, lumpy crab meat, no filler. Exactly what you want!
Q: This area is doing a lot to help sea turtles. Is there anything else on your list that would like to help?
A: There are a couple of ways we try to get some things done. It is a little more difficult here because we have to go to every city, as every city regulates its beaches a little differently, there is not a single authority. So we have to go to a lot of different places! One of the great things about summer nestlings and hatchlings would be the lighting on the beach. Just switching to red lighting, which is safe and provides plenty of light, would help the turtles avoid confusion as they hatch by following incorrect lighting and moving away from the ocean.
Another problem that is different in every city concerns items left on the beach overnight. We try to get notices about lighting and these overnight accommodations in hotels and rental houses. When a mother sea turtle shows up at night, they don’t always see the string holding a tent in place or know what a chair is. By the time they get tangled, they are already so exhausted that they often cannot loosen up and become stressed – which leads to a call to us.
Q: You have a very cool office! A aquarium! Any favorite residents here?
A: Here I can let off steam. I help feed the big alligators. I just dove into the shark exhibit this morning. It breaks our routine and you get to know the other animals. At the moment I am helping with the training of our new female otters and introducing them to the boys here. She is very vocal about that!
Q: What do you like best about this job?
A: Between the state, the NC Aquarium Society, and NEST, we’ve brought something to the area that people don’t really see. I think it’s really cool and one of the reasons this job appealed to me.
I was used to doing public relations and talking about what we do. But it’s another thing for guests to come into your rehab room and watch what we do. I can have a sea turtle in the middle of the operation and people come in and see what we do and we can talk about it. This will instantly connect you to wildlife and show what we do and why it matters. I think that’s a big deal.