Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2005 | People

Animal Planet: Hal Schimmelpfennig

By Kathryn Howe

Hal Schimmelpfennig patiently strolls the dark beach, eyes intent on the place where land meets the sea.

Suddenly, a 500-pound black oval emerges from the water and lumbers across the sand. The female leatherback turtle digs a hole with her back flippers, deposits as many as 120 soft, pliable eggs, and covers the nest. Her maternal duties fulfilled, she returns to the ocean. The responsibility then falls to Schimmelpfennig and his counterparts to protect her nest from birds, poachers, and other predators. If necessary, they move nests so that high tide won’t sweep the eggs away; when the baby turtles hatch, they shepherd them toward the sea. Working throughout the night, the volunteers are exhausted by the end of the week.

“Sometimes several [turtles] will come in at once and you’re very busy. Other times you’re trying to figure out some way to stay awake,” says Schimmelpfennig, a retired international pharmaceuticals executive.

Schimmelpfennig is happy to lose sleep if it means preserving a beautiful creature. An EarthWatch conservation program brought him to Saint Croix, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, to help researchers save the vulnerable leatherback turtle. EarthWatch volunteers pay for the privilege of traveling and doing such work. Schimmelpfennig has also participated in studies in New Zealand and Australia that examined the welfare of dusky dolphins and the endangered platypus, as well as a stateside project to chart deer overpopulation in Virginia.

“Preserving these unique creatures is a great need for society, and it’s a shame when we [humans] take over everything,” he says. “We need to make the planet hospitable to all of us. These experiences have given me a much greater appreciation for our environment. I come away awed by our natural world.”