Discovery of leatherbacks nesting on St. John is first in four years
By ANDREA MILAM | Virgin Islands Daily News St. John Correspondent
The Friends of Virgin Islands National Park Sea Turtle Program’s report on the 2022 nesting season, released last month with data from the timeframe of April 2022 to February 2023, revealed the discovery of two leatherback nests on St. John during the season.
The nests, found at Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay, were the first leatherback nests to be documented on St. John since 2016. Hawksbill and green sea turtles, more commonly seen around the island, laid a recorded 21 and two nests, respectively, during the 2022 season. All three species are listed on the Endangered Species Act.
Turtle nesting activity was monitored, as it has been for several years, in the early morning hours from June through November by volunteers. This year, the program monitored 47 beaches between one and seven days a week by 67 volunteers. Volunteers used the Epicollect5 app for the first time this year, allowing them to electronically log their findings.
The beaches where the most nesting activity was recorded were Windswept, a small point just to the northeast of Trunk Bay, and the western side of Reef Bay. Both beaches experience minimal impact by visitors. There were six hawksbill nests and three dry runs documented at Windswept. At Reef Bay, four hawksbill and two green sea turtle nests were documented, along with one possible nest and five dry runs, which occur when a turtle crawls onto the beach but does not nest. The critically endangered hawksbill produces the majority of nests found on St. John.
Protection measures are taken for documented nests, including a plastic mesh screen placed over the nest to protect the eggs from predators, and mongoose eradication efforts in partnership with the USDA on beaches with nesting activity. Mongooses are a widespread predator of sea turtle eggs and hatchlings.
Sea Turtle Program Coordinators Adren Anderson and Willow Melamet, with the help of volunteers, excavate nests within five days of hatchlings’ emergence to determine each nest’s success. The excavation process alone helped 194 hatchlings, most of which were found entangled in roots, make it to the sea alive. A total of 2,530 eggs were found in the excavated nests, producing 2,289 hatchlings.
In addition to protecting sea turtle nests, volunteer efforts had a further positive impact on the island’s natural environment, the 2022 season report shared. During the more than 1,765 beach patrols conducted, 764 beach clean-up efforts were recorded. Many volunteers also went above and beyond by continuing their patrols after their official commitment ended in November, leading to the discovery of nests in December and January.
Beyond efforts to document and protect nests, the Sea Turtle Program works to raise awareness in the community through educational outreach, research, and partnerships with other turtle protection and rescue programs.
Education outreach efforts for the 2022 season included weekly turtle talks at Maho Bay and Cinnamon Bay Campground; beach and in-class field trips for 12 groups of students from pre-K through grade 12, along with five turtle talks for summer camp groups; and presentations to the Youth Conservation Corps and Summer Trail Crew groups. The program also reaches out to visitors through a twice-monthly snorkel trip in partnership with Ocean Surfari, which donates proceeds above cost from these trips to the Friends of VINP.
“We aim to cultivate marine-based education outreach and conservation efforts further in 2023 with the main intention of fostering marine stewardship,” states the 2022 season report. “This boat trip will hopefully serve as a model and lead to additional focus and initiatives geared toward charter companies and captains that utilize the water of St. John.”
Research efforts this season focused on genetic sampling in collaboration with the University of the Virgin Islands, the Ocean Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Genetic samples taken from St. John nests will provide insight into population demographics and structure of nesting hawksbills in the Virgin Islands.
Research has also been conducted on fibropapillomatosis tumors found on the foraging population of green sea turtles at Maho Bay. Using unique facial scale patterns, 45 individuals have been identified between October 2016 and February 2023. Emergence and regression of fibropapillomatosis tumors, as well as the appearance and healing of wounds, have been documented.
“Documentation is key to creating a baseline of the presence and severity of this disease which may assist with future research,” the 2022 season report states. “The purpose of this observational study is to monitor and document tumor growth and development of the sea turtles that forage within Maho Bay. The objective is to regularly photograph and catalog pictures of individuals to better assess the health of the population and to monitor the abundance and spread of this disease.”
Finally, the season report shared data from the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rescue Network, which provides rescue and response for turtles throughout the Virgin Islands. There were more than a dozen St. John-based stranding calls during the 2022 calendar year, consisting of entanglement, disease, unusual behavior/floating, and boat strike injuries. There were six documented fatal green turtle strandings around St. John — three whose cause was undetermined, two as a result of boat strikes, and one entanglement.
“To help ensure the survival of the species, efforts and protection measures have to be both land and sea based,” the report concludes. “This is why education outreach, research, marine stewardship, and the STAR network are integral pieces of the conservation equation in addition to nest monitoring and protection. All of these efforts could not have been achieved without the VINP, Friends of VINP, donors, volunteers, and the community of St. John.”
Volunteer training for the 2023 season will begin in June. Friends will host a virtual seminar detailing the 2022 season report and more on May 25 from noon to 1 p.m. Signup info for this seminar will be posted at www.friendsvinp.org.
For more information on the Friends Sea Turtle Program, visit www.friendsvinp.org/sea-turtle/.
Photo: VINP Sea Turtle Program coordinator, Adren Anderson excavating a nest.