As the start of the hurricane season, June fills some people with fear. But for volunteers in the Virgin Islands National Park’s Sea Turtle Program, June is a time of joy.
It’s almost time to start regular morning beach patrols and, with a bit of luck, discover that a hawksbill sea turtle crawled ashore to make a nest in the sand.
In 2020, the number of volunteers tripled, in part due to travel restrictions that keep residents on the island for the summer. A record number of volunteers patrolled 47 beaches on St. John, resulting in the discovery of 33 confirmed nests.
Some of these volunteers will leave the island after the restrictions are lifted, so the program’s co-directors are looking for new recruits.
Adren Anderson and Willow Melamet, who run the program sponsored by Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, have planned a series of training workshops on Hawksnest Beach.
All new volunteers must attend one of the training sessions held over the next two weeks.
The morning sessions will take place on June 8, June 13 and June 15 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
The afternoon sessions will take place on June 9th, June 12th and June 16th from 4pm to 6pm.
Interested parties can register by sending an email to [email protected]
Volunteers must currently live on St. John and be able to provide beach patrols one to two hours a week from July through November.
In the training workshops, volunteers learn more about the green, hawksbill and leatherback turtles that have nested on St. John in the past. You will also learn to spot the tracks of a nesting turtle that can confuse beachgoers as they sometimes look like a series of tire tracks coming straight out of the ocean.
All species of sea turtles in the Virgin Islands are critically endangered, and that’s why it’s important to protect their nests from predators, including dogs and mongoose, as well as poachers who believe the eggs have particular health benefits.
When volunteers find a nest, Anderson and Melamet quickly make their way to the crime scene to protect it from predators. Last year was the best so far on the program to find nests. The 33 protected nests yielded almost 4,000 eggs.
By recording the date of nesting activity, program directors can predict when the nest is likely to hatch and keep an eye on activity. Volunteers often hold vigils all night in hopes of seeing pups emerge from their nests and make their way to the sea.
A few days after the baby turtles emerged from the sand, Anderson and Melamet dig up 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 have successfully made it out of the nest. In the past year, 2,648 empty tubes were counted.
Not all baby turtles that hatch from their eggs can crawl out of their nests. Some get caught under stones or tangled in branches. Last year, 216 live pups found in their nests were rescued from excavations.
Volunteers who witnessed these nest excavations rejoiced when the rescued baby turtles awoke, shook their fins and waddled on the sand. Once the turtles reach the sea, they will spend the rest of their lives there, except for brief periods of time when adult females return to their birth beaches to nest.
Volunteers also help Anderson and Melamet find new nests that could be inundated by wave action. When a nest is threatened, program directors can move 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 juvenile survival rate of 76 percent. However, four other nests, discovered too late to be relocated, were flooded; None of these eggs survived. Therefore, volunteers are encouraged to patrol the beaches early in the morning if a rescue is still possible.
Undeveloped juveniles found in nests serve a scientific purpose. Anderson and Melamet are now licensed to collect tissue samples for a genetic study that could help scientists understand the nature of turtle populations across the region. The study is a collaboration between 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 the genetic studies will help solve some of the hawksbill turtle puzzles. Nobody knows where the hatchlings go when they are on the water. It is believed that when they are small they find shelter under floating algae and later move to feeding grounds. After they reach maturity – in 20 or 30 years – they mate and migrate back near the beach where they hatch to lay eggs.
The VINP Sea Turtle Program has also partnered with the University of the Virgin Islands, the National Save the Sea Foundation, and the Ocean Foundation to lead an initiative to create a hawksbill turtle conservation action plan for the Virgin Islands.
The VINP Sea Turtle Program also conducts research on the population of foraging sea turtles in Maho Bay affected by fibropapillomatosis (FP).
According to the program’s website, “FP is a debilitating infectious disease that manifests itself as both external and internal tumors in sea turtles, mainly greens. The tumors can affect a person’s eyesight, ability to swim, forage for food, and avoid predators. “
The cause of the disease is unknown, “however, it has been linked to individuals with immunosuppression from environmental and human-induced stressors. Sea turtles with FP tumors have been anecdotally seen more frequently in St. John’s waters in recent years, ”the website says.
Melamet offers some pointers for those who cannot volunteer but want to help protect sea turtles:
– Be polite. Stay 6 to 10 feet from a turtle while snorkeling or swimming. Do not touch, harass, or hunt turtles. It violates state and local law.
– When you are out on a boat, slow down for the people below. Be diligent as turtles are often on the surface to breathe. Reduce your speed in areas where the turtles are known to be frequent.
– Wear UV rash protectors to minimize sunscreen use and only use reef-safe sunscreen.
– Many of STJ’s beaches are important nesting sites for the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle. Please leave the beach cleaner than you found it.
– If a turtle is found in distress, please call the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rescue (STAR) hotline at (340) 690-0474. “