Photo courtesy of Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s Stranding Response Program

Va. “Turtle Lady” Remembered for Dedication to Marine Wildlife

Marian Childress, arguably the most dedicated volunteer with the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s Stranding Response Program, has passed away, leaving behind a legacy of tireless care for animals in need.

Aquarium Chief of Research and Conservation Mark Swingle became good friends with Childress during the many years they worked together and says her contributions are literally record-setting. 

“She has the distinction of having the most volunteer hours of any volunteer that has ever been at the aquarium,” he says. Childress clocked more than 16,000 hours over the course of her 17 years of volunteer work.

A native Virginian and retired school teacher, Childress initially helped take care of birds in the aquarium’s aviary in the early days. Swingle says she then became an integral part of the center’s Stranding Response Program.

Because the program was created to respond to sea turtles and marine mammals that come ashore throughout all of tidal Virginia, a lot of support, mostly in the form of volunteers, is necessary to help carry out the mission. “Marian was a classic example of the kind of people that actually made a program like this work,” says Swingle. 

For years, Childress was the only person to actively patrol Virginia Beach for turtle nests and injured or deceased animals. “She was sort of one of our pioneers for it,” Swingle says. 

As the public continued to see her at work out on the beach, Childress got the affectionate nickname of “Turtle Lady.”

“She was incredibly dedicated,” Swingle says, noting that the nature of the job–finding wildlife in distress or worse–wasn’t easy. Although the day to day could be difficult, he says Childress’s contributions were what made the program work; it was essential that someone monitor the animals’ health and (in some cases) know how they died so the aquarium could better understand what was happening to the populations.

“When she took something on, she did it 100 percent,” Swingle says of Childress’s work ethic. He recalls that he and other aquarium staff members would joke that although she was a bit older than most of the team, Childress would “run circles around younger people.” Swingle says that it was only when her health started to decline did she turn the work over to others. 

Even weeks before she passed, Childress was asking what she could do to help from her bed, he says. The aquarium is planning on honoring Childress at its Darden Marine Animal Conservation Center, a facility that’s being built and will become home to the Stranding Response Program. 

“She was very passionate about wild animals, and that was just the thing that she dedicated the second half of her life to,” Swingle says of his friend. “She was amazing. She set the bar for all of us.” 

Laura Adams Boycourt