Aug. 21, 2005 — A young man from St. Croix is turning a lifetime experience by the sea into an academic track record in marine science. Kemit-Amon Lewis says it all began with family outings to the beach.
His love of the sea was nurtured by his father, who took him and his brothers to the beach every week and every day in the summer.
Those days at the beach turned into days on one particular beach, watching huge reptiles making their pilgrimage back to Sandy Point to breed.
Working on his master's degree in marine biology at Savannah State University, Lewis said he went to graduate school already knowing a lot about sea turtles, having spent his summers back home working with the V.I. Division of Fish and Wildlife. Before that, there was a marine biology class at St. Croix Central High School.
"I think, at the time, they were one of the only schools that had a marine biology program. In fact, it was really an intense program, we had a Marine Science 1 and 2 class. The two classes took us out in the field, and we also had a scuba club. You got certified after the end of the year for the Marine Science 2 class, as well as with the scuba club. From there I ventured out to Savannah State University, where I majored in marine science," he said.
Lewis received the Tropical Shipping Scholarship of $8,000 a year for four years, which assisted in his undergraduate expenses.
Once he got to Savannah State, Lewis got his hands on 20 years of data from the Sandy Point Project on St. Croix. According to Dr. William Coles, chief environmental education field director, the project was designed to optimize the chance for successful reproduction of the species at Sandy Point.
There were several things Lewis already knew about the leatherback, but once he started plowing through the stacks of research, he said there were new revelations on a familiar subject.
"We have one of the largest assemblages of leatherback females in the Caribbean, and we've seen numbers increase from eight to 20 at the beginning of the project 'til now. I think the most for any given year is 210 females," he said.
Living on a preferred diet of sea jellies — which are primarily water — leatherbacks grow to sizes of six to eight feet and weights of up to 1,500 pounds. But the Crucian grad student said his main focus was on the way female turtles come back and keep coming back to the place of their birth.
After venturing out into the depths of the sea, the female leatherbacks return to almost the exact spot where they were hatched in order to lay their eggs, he said. They do this in cycles, from two to three years.
Armed with this information, scientists can better anticipate the turtle's return and prepare Sandy Point for their arrival, with the help of volunteers. And after years of restricting the amount of human intervention taking place in the Sandy Point turtle-nesting area, this is an example of how people can do more good than harm, Lewis said.
He came home recently to share his findings with researchers on St. Thomas. Professor Roy Watlington says Lewis' presentation was the first under an agreement between Savannah State and UVI. "It is encouraging that a young, native Virgin Islander [is] the first presenter under this agreement," he said.
Higher education leaders in the territory say they want to see more local students enter the field of scientific research, and to do his part, Lewis says he comes back home to work with turtle program volunteers, some of whom are starting out as he did, as students in their school's marine biology course.
Currently Lewis is a research assistant in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Living Marine Resources Cooperative Sciences Center at Savannah State.
Lewis also proudly notes that he was a Virgin Islands Future Business Leaders of America State President in 2000. He says his involvement with FBLA was inspired by his mother, Maria Thomas-Lewis, who has been a local advisor since 1989. He added that FBLA was a big part of his life growing up.
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