No Turtle Left Behind
Dr. Christine Figgener ’19 is spreading her love for sea turtles and creating awareness for the threats the ocean and its inhabitants face.
- By Tiarra Drisker ’25
- Lead photo by Thierry Bois
- Oct. 11, 20234 min read
As a child, Dr. Christine Figgener ’19 was afraid of the ocean. Standing on the beaches of Greece, she feared what she didn’t know and couldn’t see. All kinds of critters swam beneath the waves. With her father’s encouragement and a pair of diving goggles, she grew to love the sea and the animals within it. Though her appreciation for the ocean took time, with sea turtles, it was love at first sight.
“When I got the chance to visit Costa Rica as a research assistant in my early 20s, I saw my first leatherback sea turtle nesting. That was where I fell in love,” she said. “Knowing that sea turtles all over the world are facing extinction, I decided I needed to do something. I wanted to work with and for these animals.”
After a decade working as a sea turtle biologist in Costa Rica, Figgener set her heart on furthering her passion for sea turtles through a doctorate. Texas A&M University offered just the right option, the Marine Biology Interdisciplinary Program, a unique graduate curriculum spanning across three Texas A&M University System campuses: College Station, Galveston and Corpus Christi. With Dr. Pamela Plotkin as her academic advisor, she continued researching sea turtles’ general behavioral physiology and migratory patterns in Costa Rica. “Texas A&M has a lot of excellent researchers and lab equipment,” she noted. “I used all the resources the larger system had to offer to answer my research questions: lab equipment, expertise, an extensive research library—you name it and it was there.”
Figgener is widely considered an expert in her field, but most non-scientists know her from her 2015 viral video showing her colleague pulling a straw from a sea turtle’s nose. The video garnered more than 100 million views and inspired a global anti-plastic movement that led to several straw and single-use plastic bans by various businesses and even countries. “It gave me an incredible platform where I’ve been able to talk about sea turtles and the threats they face,” Figgener explained. “This unique position also offers me an opportunity to communicate relevant science to the public.”
Eight years have passed since that video went viral, and the conservationist is still on a mission to strengthen grassroots turtle conservation efforts through her own nonprofit organization, COASTS, which runs different projects and trains local conservationists and scientists in Costa Rica. Saving sea turtles from extinction is an ongoing endeavor, she said, especially given the state of our oceans. “Sea turtles are symbolic of what’s happening in the oceans on a wider scale,” she explained. “People need to be aware that our life support system, our blue lungs, is in dire straits and that our oceans are one of our biggest assets in fighting the global climate crisis.”
As global temperatures and sea levels rise, nesting beaches are disappearing. Sea turtles are also producing less males because the temperature of the sand during the incubation of the eggs determines their biological sex. These issues, along with industrial fishing, direct exploitation for meat, shells and eggs, and ocean pollution have caused a significant decline in sea turtle populations. Leatherback sea turtles specifically have seen a 90% decrease in nesting over the past three generations in some populations.
Figgener continues her mission to create awareness in her new book, “My Life With Sea Turtles: A Marine Biologist’s Quest to Protect One of the Most Ancient Animals on Earth,” due for release in English in May 2024 by Greystone Books, which details the threats to sea turtles while also recounting Figgener’s life and research. “I want people to fall in love with sea turtles as I did and encourage young girls and women reading my book to take a similar path,” she said. “Hopefully, telling my story is a step toward diversifying conservation and preventing these majestic animals from disappearing forever.”
Make an Impact: You can support future Aggie ocean conservationists with a scholarship for marine biology students! Contact Jason Tieman '97 to learn more. Interested in supporting Figgener’s work? Visit seaturtlebiologist.com.
About Dr. Christine Figgener ’19
Dr. Christine Figgener ’19 is a German marine conservation biologist who advocates for ocean conservation while studying and protecting sea turtles and empowering women in STEM. She founded the nonprofit organization Costa Rican Alliance for Sea Turtle Conservation & Science (COASTS) and the consulting firm Nāmaka Conservation Science. In 2018, because of her advocacy efforts, Time magazine named her a Next Generation Leader, and the Dallas Morning News selected her as a Texan of the Year finalist.