sea turtle monitoring and hurricane recovery in St croix usvi
Nearly a year after Category 5 Hurricane Maria blew past just to the south of St. Croix (Virgin Islands), leaving devastation in her wake, we are finishing up the 2018 sea turtle nesting season at one of the most well-known sea turtle nesting beaches in the Caribbean. The National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation was a big part of our work this year, and we are so grateful for their support in helping to get our monitoring and research projects back up and running after the massive storm.

Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, on the southwestern corner of St. Croix, felt the impacts of Maria quite strongly, with the eye of the storm passing just to the south of the refuge beaches. Along the south shore, a tremendous amount of sand was deposited onto the shoreline, and the vegetation was damaged extensively. On the north shore, sand was stripped away and the last ten years of sandy deposits were lost to the nearshore waters. That sand did make its way back just before and during turtle season.

At the beginning of the season (March), nearly all of the beach marker stakes needed to be replaced so that we could properly triangulate our nests. With so much habitat changed, we were not sure what to expect from the leatherbacks this year. In the two years prior (2016 and 2017) nesting was the lowest it had been since the 1990s, which was quite concerning. The season was slow to start, with the turtles arriving later than normal. They picked up quickly

though we had a good number of new nesting females this year (15 of 38 total individual females). We identified 38 turtles, all of which were adopted and named! Our oldest turtle found this year was Milly, who has been nesting at Sandy Point since 1992, laying over 100 clutches of eggs over the years! Other interesting recaptures included Edith (AAV522) nesting since 2000, and last seen in 2015, and Rose (TTZ357), a turtle from 2007, our champion nester, who nested 7 times this season! We had a total of 140 leatherback nests this year.

Our research assistants and volunteers were phenomenal! From early April to the end of June, they walked up to 12 miles each night to intercept nesting leatherbacks, tagging and taking a genetic sample from each one. We were able to support six full-time volunteer research assistants, six students working on projects, and 10 volunteers this season. Our team members are now studying various aspects of leatherback life history and the results gathered this season. Members of our team will present papers at the International Sea Turtle Symposium on nest distribution and hatching success following Hurricane Maria, the rate of injuries on nesting females over the season, and results of nest surveys for all three species, among other topics.

In June, we added hatchling protection to our duties and each evening we were on the beaches waiting for our marked nests to emerge. We wait until the hatchlings reach the surface of the sand and protect them from predators.

Once we are finished with night patrols for leatherbacks, then we do early morning patrols to count hawksbill and green turtle crawls, identify nests and conduct excavations and inventories of any hatched nests (for all species). We trained several volunteers this year with our expanded capacity (thanks to the National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation) to cover the beaches more frequently. During July, we had a special visit from Dr. Larry Wood, along with several volunteers from his Florida Hawksbill Project! Many thanks to Tanja, Layna, Anna, Analisa and Emily for spending a week with us, helping with leatherback hatchling protection, morning patrols, and hawksbill patrols. It was great to have them with us!
Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge is located on the southwest tip of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Researchers have been studying a nesting population of leatherback turtles for over two decades, and have made great strides in our understanding of sea turtle reproductive behavior.
Dr. Stewart and her team take the lab to the beach! Hatchling leatherbacks are temporarily detained after they emerge from their nests so samples and data can be collected for both short and long-term projects.
Our project is updated regularly on our website at SeaTurtleCensus. com. We also have a Facebook page (@stxleatherbacks) that we update all year long. Very special thanks to the 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.
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National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation
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