OH!, What A Night! St. Thomas Youth Help Monitor Endangered Sea Turtles.
All species of sea turtles in the territory are endangered. The hawskbill is critically endangered.
This past weekend, four students from the St. Thomas arm of the Youth Ocean Explorers (YOE) program at the University of the Virgin Islands Center for Marine and Environmental Studies had the rare opportunity to participate in the National Park Service's Sea Turtle Monitoring Program on Buck Island Reef National Monument in St. Croix. Eleven YOE students to date have had the opportunity to participate in this program.
Traveling on the QE4 ferry the children arrived on St. Croix in the early evening and were swiftly transported to Green Cay Marina where they met with NPS staff and acting chief Zandy Hillis Starr for a short but critical briefing. After all, the sea turtles known to nest on Buck Island are some of the most critically endangered in the world. (For the record, it is illegal to disturb, touch, get near to, chase, or otherwise harass any of the sea turtles in the territory. Doing so is punishable by law with fines up to $10,000.)
Once on the Buck Island dock, participants split into two patrol teams to take turns scouring the north and south beaches where sea turtles are known to lay their eggs. Flashlights with red filters were used to reduce disturbance to the nesting turtles.
At 7pm, only 2 hours after beginning patrols, the first sea turtle was spotted. This mama green sea turtle, the Chelonia mydas was estimated to weigh around 300 pounds. Once ashore she began clearing vegetation and digging her nest.
Two more sea turtles, hawksbills (Eretmochelys imbricata) this time, were encountered through the night. One hawksbill was rather picky about selecting the perfect spot to lay her eggs, taking at least half an hour to find a location that suited her tastes. The second hawksbill was less selective and laid her eggs too close to the shore where they were at risk of being flooded. NPS staff worked quickly to very carefully relocate the eggs into a new nest YOE students dug further inland.
Throughout the night, the student teams were able to assist NPS staff with the overall examination of the sea turtle which included measuring their length, plotting GPS coordinates of the nest, and if possible, collecting a genetic sample of the turtles. When laying eggs, the turtles are in a trance–like state and basically are in autopilot however, white lights can be disruptive to her laying. Once the eggs are laid, the turtles will spend up to an hour covering and camouflaging the nest. This is the point when you can very easily get sandblasted if you stand too close!
All in all, they had a pretty active night (from 6pm to 6am). This work to monitor sea turtle nesting populations on Buck Island is important for conservation purposes. Studies have shown that 1 in 100 sea turtle hatchlings will make it to maturity. Bear in mind that sea turtles can't reproduce until age 25 to 30 so it is imperative that we protect them such they are able to reach that stage.
The National Park Service (NPS), an important partner to the inaugural St. Croix extension of the YOE summer program, graciously extended this opportunity to YOE participants on both islands. NPS has been conducting surveys of the hawksbill and green sea turtles during nesting season for about 32 years now. Peak nesting season is from June through November.
Research is conducted by the National Park Service Buck Island Sea Turtle Research Program under ESA USFWS permit with National Park Service biologists.
To learn more about the National Park Service's Sea Turtle Monitoring Program or to volunteer, call 340-773-1460.