July 14, 2008 — Over the next few months, the only ones working harder than four young research assistants busily logging the comings, goings and nestings of sea turtles on Buck Island may well be mother turtles and hatchlings scrambling awkwardly across the sands in the dead of night.
For two decades now, the Buck Island Sea Turtle Research Program, a long-term monitoring, research and conservation project supported by the National Park Service, has been a critical part of the effort to protect the endangered hawksbill and leatherback turtles and the threatened green sea turtle. And there are increasing signs of success, which means more work for researchers but a brighter future for sea turtles.
"We are going to have a super busy nesting season," said Zandy Hillis-Starr, chief of resource management for the National Park Service. "We have had 17 activities reported in the last five days."
Hillis-Starr spoke at a gathering Monday at The Buccaneer hotel that marked the start of the nesting season, introduced the new researchers and saluted the Buccaneer for its role as volunteer headquarters.
"We are seeing the results of the last 35 years of conservation," Hillis-Starr said. "The efforts across the Caribbean are starting to pay off. We have seen 75 to 80 females active on Buck Island alone."
There are several key nesting areas on St. Croix including Buck Island Reef National Monument, Sandy Point, Jacks, Issacs and East End Beach. The four volunteer assistants carry the brunt of the research load, each spending five nights a week on the beach where they observe where the turtles nest and tag those that are not already tagged.
They keep track of how many times the females come up on the beach to nest and where the nests are. After the eggs hatch, they go back and count the hatched shells, open the unopened eggs, help stragglers find their way to the sea and relocate some nests.
Not only that, they collect soil samples, deploy temperature loggers, take water related measurements, and participate in processing tissue samples.
For all that, they get their room and board paid. These are nonetheless highly coveted positions, according to the National Park Service, aimed at college students and recent graduates who want to make ecology and resource management their career.
This year's participants come from all over the mainland U.S.: Lindsey Albright from Minnesota, Clayton Pollack of Connecticut, Amber Avestruz from California and Julia Polan from South Carolina.
The research assistants also take part in educational outreach for guests of The Buccaneer, which for more than 15 years has put up visiting volunteers and become a key player in the program.
"We take pride in the Buccaneer's participation in the rescue and conservation of turtles," said Elizabeth Armstrong, general manager of the resort.
Hillis-Starr noted that V.I. residents and visitors can do their part to protect sea turtles as well:
– Boat operators should drive cautiously, as sea turtles rise slowly to the surface to breathe and it takes them several seconds to dive to safety when a boat approaches;
– Shield lights on the shoreline — bright lights disorient nesting adults and hatchlings;
– Contact the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rescue (STAR) Network at 877-388-7853 to report stranded turtles.
Nesting areas are patrolled nightly by researchers and volunteers from federal and territorial agencies, and several non-governmental organizations and volunteers.
The nesting season for leatherback, green, loggerhead and hawksbill sea turtles began in March and will continue through December.
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