Nesting sea turtles have Friends: Park program volunteers

By SARA KIRKPATRICK Daily News Staff – This feature appeared in VI Daily News on November 12, 2021.

Sandy beaches on St. John are enjoyed by visitors and locals alike, but they also act as nesting grounds for the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle.

To that end, volunteers have been patrolling beaches to protect those nests to ensure the next generation of Hawksbills have a fighting chance.

The volunteer-based monitoring program, funded by Friends of the V.I. National Park, aims to protect sea turtle nests, facilitate research and spread awareness during the sea turtle nesting season.

Last month, the V.I. National Park Sea Turtle Program announced that 28 nests had been found on St. John, and 18 of them hatched, producing 1,800 hatchlings.

Willow Melamet, the monitoring program co-coordinator, said 28 nests are around average, as 30 to 40 nests are recorded per year. Last year, she said, the group found 34 nests.

“With over 100 volunteers, our detection rate should be higher based on more patrolling,” said Melamet, adding that she and other monitoring volunteers are still busy with 10 nests in the incubation period and new nesting activity still occurring.

Peak sea turtle nesting season for the territory is July through November, but because the Virgin Islands is a tropical environment, turtles can nest year ‘round.

According to Melamet, part-time coordinators monitor efforts outside peak season.

Although green sea turtles are often spotted foraging in territory waters, Hawksbill sea turtles routinely migrate to nest on St. John beaches. The female Hawksbill will lay her nest at night and return to the water to wait for another two weeks until she is ready to lay her next nest. This process is repeated five to seven times.

“The females will not know how the nests do, and that’s where we come in and protect them for her,” Melamet said.

Each nest can hold 100 to 200 eggs, and one female Hawksbill turtle may lay up to 1,000 eggs in a season.

According to Melamet, the eggs incubate for 50 to 70 days, and usually have a 60% to 80% hatching success rate. Of all a turtle’s hatchlings, only 1 in a 1,000 reach maturity at 30 years old.

“It’s tough from the get-go, but that’s why she lays so many eggs. That’s the turtle’s strategy for reproduction,” Melamet said.

She also noted that the nests monitored this season have had an 80% to 90% success rate, which has contributed to the high number of hatchlings.

Melamet and her co-coordinator Adren Anderson are also responders for the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rescue program, better known as STAR, and go out to assist turtles in distress in the St. John area.

To report any nesting activity or a turtle stranded or in distress, call the STAR hotline at 340-690-0474 or 340-643-8560.

During the nesting season, beachgoers are urged not to disturb any nests or hatchings, and to comply with all V.I. National Park Service rules.

Boaters are also encouraged to be alert for increased turtle traffic in territorial waters, and to be sure to slow down around mooring fields.

“Slow down for those below. Turtles can’t withstand water collisions,” Melamet said.

— Contact Sara Kirkpatrick at 340-714- 9109 or email