As the start of hurricane season, the month of June fills some people with dread. But for volunteers in the Virgin Islands National Park’s Sea Turtle Program, June is a time to rejoice.
It’s almost time to begin regular morning beach patrols and, with some luck, discover that a hawksbill turtle has crawled ashore during the night to lay a nest in the sand.
In 2020, the number of volunteers tripled, partly as a result of travel restrictions keeping residents on island for the summer. A record number of volunteers patrolled 47 beaches on St. John, leading to the discovery of 33 confirmed nests.
Some of these volunteers will travel off island now that restrictions have been lifted, so the program’s co-directors are looking for new recruits.
Adren Anderson and Willow Melamet, who manage the program sponsored by the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, have scheduled a series of training workshops to be held at Hawksnest Beach.
All new volunteers are required to attend one of the training sessions which are being held over the next two weeks.
Morning sessions will be held from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on June 8, June 13, and June 15.
Afternoon sessions will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on June 9, June 12, and June 16.
Those interested sign up by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volunteers must currently live on St. John and be able to commit to one to two hours a week of beach monitoring from July through November.
At the training workshops, volunteers will learn about the green, hawksbill, and leatherback turtles that have historically nested on St. John. They’ll also be taught to identify the tracks of a nesting turtle which can mystify beachgoers because they sometimes resemble a set of tire tracks heading straight out of the sea.
All species of sea turtles in the Virgin Islands are endangered, and that’s why it’s important to protect their nests from predators, including dogs and mongooses, as well as poachers who believe the eggs have special health benefits.
When volunteers find a nest, Anderson and Melamet quickly head to the scene to screen it from predators. Last year was the program’s best yet for finding nests. The 33 protected nests yielded nearly 4,000 eggs.
By recording the date of the nesting activity, the program directors can predict when the nest is likely to hatch, and they keep a close eye on the activity. Volunteers often pull all-night vigils hoping to see hatchlings emerge from their nests, and make their way toward the sea.
Several days after the baby turtles emerge from the sand, Anderson and Melamet excavate the nest to count the number of egg shells.
Nests typically contain between 100 and 200 ping-pong ball-sized eggs.
Some shells contain developing turtles that never hatched, but the empty shells are an indication of the number of hatchlings that successfully made it out of the nest. Last year, 2,648 empty shells were counted.
Not all baby turtles who hatch out of their eggs are able to crawl out of their nests. Some get caught under rocks or get tangled in branches. Last year, 216 living hatchlings found caught in their nests were rescued during excavations.
Volunteers who witnessed these nest excavations were delighted to see the rescued baby turtles awaken, shake their flippers, and begin to waddle across the sand. Once the turtles reach the sea, they will spend the rest of their lives there except for brief periods when mature females return to their natal beaches to nest.
Volunteers also help Anderson and Melamet find new nests that are in danger of being inundated by wave action. If a nest is threatened, the program directors can relocate the eggs to a safer location, but only if the nest is discovered within a few hours of being laid.
Last year, six nests were relocated, with an average hatchling survival rate of 76 percent. However, four other nests, discovered too late to be moved, were inundated; none of these eggs survived. That’s why volunteers are urged to patrol the beaches early in the morning when rescue is still possible.
Undeveloped hatchlings found in nests do serve a scientific purpose. Anderson and Melamet are now licensed to take tissue samples for a genetics study that may lead scientists to understand the nature of turtle populations throughout the region. The study is a collaboration among the University of the Virgin Islands, the Ocean Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
The scientists hope that the genetic studies will help to answer some of the mysteries involving hawksbill sea turtles. No one knows where the hatchlings go once they hit the water. It’s thought that they find shelter under drifting seaweed when they are small and later move to foraging grounds. After they reach maturity – in 20 or 30 years – they mate and migrate back near to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs.
The VINP Sea Turtle Program has also formed a partnership with the University of the Virgin Islands, the National Save the Sea Foundation, and The Ocean Foundation to spearhead an initiative to produce a Hawksbill Conservation Action Plan for the Virgin Islands.
The VINP Sea turtle Program is also conducting research on the population of foraging sea turtles at Maho Bay who have been affected by fibropapillomatosis, also known as FP.
According to the program’s website, “FP is a debilitating infectious disease that presents as both external and internal tumors on sea turtles, primarily greens. The tumors can hinder an individual’s sight, ability to swim, forage, and evade predators.”
The cause of the disease is unknown, “however, it has been linked to individuals with immunosuppression due to environmental and human-based stressors. Sea turtles with FP tumors have been anecdotally seen with increased frequency within St. John waters in recent years,” the website states.
Melamet offers some pointers for those who cannot volunteer but want to help protect sea turtles:
– Be respectful. Maintain a distance of 6 to 10 feet away from a turtle when snorkeling or swimming. Do not touch, harass, or chase a turtle. It is against federal and local law.
– When out on a boat slow down for those below. Be diligent as turtles are often at the surface to breathe. Reduce your speed in areas the turtles are known to frequent.
– Wear a UV rash guard to minimize sunscreen use and be sure to only use reef-safe sunscreen when you do.
– Many of the beaches on STJ are important nesting habitats for the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle. Please leave the beach cleaner than you found it.
– If a turtle in distress is found, please call the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rescue (STAR) hotline at (340) 690-0474.