Oct. 15, 2003 – With this year's 16th annual National Park Service sea turtle research program at Buck Island finished, V.I. National Park officials on St. Croix took time this week to say thanks to one local entrepreneur whose support made it possible — this year, and in years past.
Over a three-month period, five mainland volunteers with marine biology backgrounds and interests worked on gathering data about the sea turtles that regularly visit St. Croix — leatherback, hawksbill and green turtles — adding to the findings of research carried out over the previous 15 years.
They all received complimentary room and board at The Buccaneer Hotel.
On Tuesday, park personnel expressed their appreciation to Elizabeth Armstrong, general manager of the Buccaneer, at a luncheon — held at the hotel, in the Mermaid Restaurant.
"The Buccaneer has a strong record in supporting National Park Service volunteer programs," Kimberly Woody, St. Croix national park biological sciences technician, said on Wednesday. "Without it this year, and in years past, our program would not have been successful."
Woody explained that each year the St. Croix park advertises for volunteers for the three-month summer sea turtle resource management program. This year's outreach was via the online Marine Turtle Newsletter and the NPS Web site and at the annual International Sea Turtle Symposium, she said, "and word of mouth from others who have participated."
"Every year we have volunteers, sometimes in combination with seasonally hired biology technicians," Woody said. "This year, we had all volunteers."
There were upwards of 20 applicants, she said. She and her fellow biological sciences technician, Philippe Mayor, made their choices in cooperation with their boss, Zandy Hillis-Sparr, the St. Croix park's chief of resources.
To be considered, Woody said, applicants needed "to have some background in quality data collecting in the sciences, and to be interested in continuing biology or resource management careers, using our project as a springboard. And they had to be in good physical shape."
Participating were Andrea Coch from Darwin, Australia; Samantha Feingold from Massachusetts; Melanie Olds from California; Jennifer Shelby from Alabama; and Ryan Welsh from Michigan. There were actually four volunteer positions; Feingold and Olds divided one up, each working for a month and a half.
It was night work. "We were out on the island 12 hours a night, so that turned out to be about a 14-hour night," what with commuting, Woody said. Someone was on duty every night, with volunteers usually working a five-night week. So much for fun in the sun on a tropical isle. But they all took it in stride, working on their "moontans," she said.
What they were doing was collecting information on the endangered hawksbill and leatherback turtles and the threatened green sea turtle. Step 1 was simply to meet up with one of the creatures on the beach at Buck Island. "Every time they encountered a turtle, they had a data sheet to fill out," Woody explained. "They took a photograph of the carapace [shell] and measured it." They observed where the turtles nested and laid eggs. And they tagged the turtles that were not already tagged from previous research.
They kept track of how many times the females came up on the beach to nest, and where the nests were. Then, Woody said, "after the eggs hatched, we would go back and count the hatched shells, open the unopened eggs and help any little stragglers" find their way to the sea.
After their 14-hour nights, she said, the volunteers also did some less-intensive monitoring of the sea turtles on the Buccaneer beaches during daytime walks.
In nesting season, Woody said, at intervals of about two weeks, "a sea turtle lays eggs in anywhere from three to seven or eight nests, depending on the species. Hawksbills do three or four a season, greens a few more, four to seven."
Once that ordeal is over, she said, they return to their feeding grounds for two to three years to "bulk up." And then they migrate back to the island again to begin the egg-laying process all over.
Turtles nesting on Buck Island that have been tracked by tagging and by satellite telemetry via transmitters attached to their shells have come from as far away as Nicaragua and Cuba as well as other parts of the Caribbean, Woody said.
As turtles are "late-maturing reptiles," she said, after 16 years of research, "we're just beginning to get an idea of our population on Buck Island." This year's count included 74 hawksbills, 8 green sea turtles and a surprise — a loggerhead. "That's a first, as far as we know," she said, adding that the species is common in the waters off South Carolina and Florida."And it nested here three times and a suspected fourth time," she added.
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