Despite all the challenges of 2020, the Sandy Point Sea Turtle Project emerged stronger and better this year than ever before! We were able to begin our leatherback satellite tagging program (delayed from 2019), complete leatherback night patrols, expand training for green and hawksbill monitoring and re-initiate our tagging of green and hawksbill turtles in the refuge. We accomplished a lot with a very small team this year.
When Covid-19 struck, we had plans (and flights) for students and volunteers to join us, and also to present our work at the International Sea Turtle Symposium in Cartagena, Colombia. All of this had to be postponed initially and then canceled. By late March, we were denied access to nesting beaches due to a stay at home order from the governor in St. Croix. But working with our colleagues at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, we got special permission to go ahead with night patrols for leatherbacks. Thanks to the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation, who had provided funds previously to purchase a Pioneer 500 UTV, we were able to do these patrols safely and following all precautions. Our skeleton crew of Kelly Stewart (TOF), Claudia Lombard and Mike Evans (USFWS), patrolled for 43 consecutive nights, identifying five individual leatherback turtles. We deployed satellite tags on the three best candidates and tracked them during the internesting season. Maps of their travels can be found at STXTurtles.com. We will continue this program in 2021 by deploying new tags in St. Croix and also in Puerto Rico with our partners there. This year we coordinated with other nesting beach programs and volunteers on the island for leatherback season, and we documented 76 leatherback nesting activities island-wide.
Even though our turtle team was not together in one place, we still worked on projects remotely, including data analyses, report writing, and the creation of educational materials for future programs.
We had been working toward improving our green and hawksbill sea turtle monitoring protocols over the past few years and this year we made great strides! We developed and used mobile app questions for collecting all data for these species. We did training for the app and for identifying turtle crawls for volunteers, who patrol seven days a week.
By the end of November, we had recorded 1,350 green turtle nests and 110 hawksbill nests! The mobile data collection made this work much more efficient, and ties in seamlessly to our database. In addition, we re-initiated our tagging program for greens and hawksbills, spending two sessions of eight days each over the full moon periods in late July and August. We tagged 26 greens and nine hawksbill turtles. We even found a hawksbill that had begun nesting at Sandy Point in 2006!
More than ever this season, the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation was instrumental in our success. Without the UTV for patrols and tagging exercises, we would not have been able to comply with Covid restrictions, and get this critical conservation work done. We are so grateful!
Our project is updated regularly on our website at SeaTurtleCensus.com. We also have a Facebook page (@stxleatherbacks) and post on Instagram (#stxturtles). Our sincere thanks to National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation for the support of our program this year! The Sea Turtle Census Initiative is a project of The Ocean Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, working in cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Marine Turtle Genetics Program in La Jolla, California.
National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation