By Kelly Palmateer
Imagine a place where sea turtles thrive and salty air blows with the sea winds. Well, there is such a place. It’s a little island called St. Croix. And it is incredible. I was so blessed this past summer to have the opportunity to visit this magical island that Kenny Chesney sings so radiantly about, and it changed my life. I went to the island as part of a yoga retreat/sea turtle conservation program with Kim Depasquale and Layna Mohl, our retreat leaders, the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, led by Kelly Stewart and their volunteers, and the St. Croix Leatherback Project, led by Larry Wood. We all worked together to study and help to conserve leatherback sea turtles as they migrate to the island to lay their little eggs. The experience was impactful to say the least. These animals are unbelievably amazing. They swim thousands of miles to this small stretch of sand on the West end of the island to climb up the dunes, to then dig for hours at a time to be able to lay their eggs in what they know as a safe haven until the eggs are ready to hatch. Talk about perseverance.
The heart-warming individuals in the yoga retreat that I traveled with, and myself, worked closely with the volunteers of each of the programs. The passion and determination these volunteers had was inspiring. For six days, we walked the beach every morning at sunrise to look for turtle tracks to new nests that had been dug the night before. And we found a lot! We would measure the width of the tracks to determine which type of sea turtle it was, because believe it or not, there are many different kinds of sea turtles. We would then study the nest and set a marker next to it with the date in order to keep track of when presumably those cute little hatchlings will want to come out. After we found all of the nests from the night before, our volunteering was put on pause and we were able to sit back and enjoy the magic this mesmerizing island has to offer. We spent our days doing yoga and snorkeling under the pier, swimming among hawksbill and green turtles in the crystal clear waters. We also went for an incredible hike up to an old lighthouse with a view that was simply indescribable.
Most days as the sun would set into the Caribbean Sea, we would have a sunset yoga session on the sand. The tranquility we felt as the sun set and the calm waves would roll in, will never be surpassed. After the sun would set every evening – and as a side note, the sunsets from the West end of the island are some for the books, by far some of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen – so after the sun would set, we would prepare to walk the beach for a couple hours in the dark, hopeful to see one or two, or even three sea turtles appear from the turquoise waters and make their way up the dunes to begin digging. We thought we almost saw a few every night, but when we got closer to what we thought was the sea turtle, we learned it was just a shadow of a rock just underneath the shoreline. We were disappointed many times, unfortunately. We never did see a sea turtle come up to the beach at night, but what we witnessed one night at sunset was life changing. As we finished one of our sunset yoga sessions, we got a signal from one of the volunteers that one of the nests was actually hatching! We all ran quickly over to the nest to see what was going on. It didn’t seem that much was going on when we arrived at the nest, but within minutes, the sand in the middle of the nest began to bubble and move around and then – a baby sea turtle head popped up through the sparkling grains of sand. It was a miracle if I have ever seen one.
We were all in awe of the little creature when one by one more started to peek their heads up through the sand. We stood back as they all emerged. It was a cluster of tiny heads and little flippers all on top of each other, and it was beautiful. As we waited patiently until all of the little babies were revealed, the volunteers allowed us to each hold one in our hands. This was the life changing part of the evening. These little creatures, so new and so tiny, had so much strength and so much determination to make it through to the top of the nest. You could literally feel the strength in their flippers. I have never felt so much nature, to put it simply, in my life. It was amazing. It doesn’t hurt that they are probably the most adorable baby animals to ever live on the planet.
So, after we all had our time with the baby sea turtles, the volunteers took them to go conduct their research. They would then keep the hatchlings safe until it was time to release them to their fate of following after their ancestors. Later in the evening, we had the rare and heart-warming opportunity to set the babies free into the ocean. Another life changing event that putting into actual words would not even come close to the experience itself. But trust me when I tell you, it was amazing.
As our retreat and volunteering came to an end, we all looked back on the past six days in complete awe and amazement of all of the things we had been given the opportunity to do. None of us wanted to leave the island, or the baby sea turtles, or each other for that matter. We all learned so much about sea turtles and the patience and drive it takes to study the graceful animals, along with learning so much about ourselves in the process. The passion and determination that all of the volunteers had will forever stay with me, and forever inspire me. I think that we all left the island with a little more passion, so much gratitude for all of the people we met and for these such empowering animals, and of course so many adorable memories. I cannot thank all of the people involved enough for the unbelievable trip to this magical island. And I am available at any time in the future, should they want or need any temporary volunteers for a few days during nesting season.
National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation