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Aug. 29, 2002 – If ever you wanted to learn about leatherback sea turtles in the territory, Coral World was the place to be on Thursday evening.
As part of the Coki Point marine park's eight-day Turtle Fest, Rafe Boulon, chief of resource management for the National Park Service in the Virgin Islands, presented a slide show on the turtles frequently found in the area and described the ongoing work at Sandy Point on St. Croix, where endangered leatherback sea turtles nest each year.
Boulon said leatherbacks, which are extremely difficult to study, are the oldest of the sea turtle species and are unlike any others. They are believed to have inhabited Earth's waters for upwards of 180 million years. "They were here since the dinosaurs," he said. "They were here when the dinosaurs left the planet, and they are still here."
Boulon, who first got involved with turtles as an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been working with leatherbacks since 1981. He was one of the original members of the leatherback turtle project on St. Croix.
The Sandy Point project has focused on the nesting and migratory habits of the largest turtles in the sea. The leatherbacks nesting on St. Croix average about 400 pounds, Boulon said, while worldwide their average size is between 700 and 800 pounds, with some as large as 2,100 pounds on record. The carapace – the "shell" – can measure 5 feet in diameter, with a "flipper-span" of up to 8 feet.
The Sandy Point leatherback turtle project, which is ongoing, tracks the turtles' nesting habits and seeks to protect both eggs and hatchlings from natural dangers. Beach erosion used to destroy about 40 percent of the eggs in the area, Boulon said, until researchers and volunteers began collecting eggs laid in erosion-prone areas and moving them to safer areas on the beach.
Hatchlings often succumb to predators during their trek from the nest site, midway up the beach, to the water. Volunteers from the group Earthwatch participate in the study every year, helping to protect the hatchlings from predatory birds.
This year, for the first time, Coki Point on St. Thomas was a leatherback turtle nesting site. Hatchlings emerged from the nest in late June and were quickly collected by Coral World staff and cared for until they could be released into the sea at a safer time. On Thursday night, following Boulon's presentation, Nemeth showed a short video edited from recordings of the hatching and later release.
High among the dangers leatherback turtles face is interference from humans, Boulon pointed out. Boat traffic and well-intentioned meddling in the hatching process often lead to injury or death for the fragile hatchlings. "They run quite a gamut of risk between the nest and the water," he said.
Once hatchlings leave the nest, their goal is to make it to the water. Unfortunately, Boulon said, development has made that goal harder to reach. Turtles head toward lighted areas, apparently mistaking artificial light for that of the horizon, he said. Beachfront development with street and interior lighting can miscue the infant turtles and prevent them from reaching the sea.
Another modern-day danger that turtles face, Boulon said, is entanglement in fishing line, ropes and other man-made debris. Sea turtles breathe air and, despite their ability to hold their breath for long periods, can drown if they are prevented from reaching the surface. Boulon said it is not uncommon to find turtles with scarring from getting entangled in underwater trash.
Unlike green turtles and hawksbill turtles, the other two species commonly found in Virgin Islands waters, leatherbacks are rarely taken as food, Boulon said. They are extremely oily and are not considered good eating, he said, but a few are killed because of belief in the healing properties of the oil they produce. But those properties have never been substantiated. "In reality, it's just oil," Boulon said.
Thanks to the Sandy Point project, he said, the number of leatherback turtles nesting at the St. Croix beach has risen from around 20 in 1981 to nearly 200 two years ago. Genetic testing of the nesting mothers has found that most are returning to the same beach where they themselves were hatched.
Genetically, "our leatherbacks on St. Croix are distinct from other turtles," Boulon said. "That means our babies are coming back." With an average of 50 hatchlings per nest, the last few years have seen between 40,000 and 50,000 turtles hatch each season, he said. With luck, many of them will be back to build their own nests.
Coral World's Turtle Fest celebration continues through Monday. Curator Donna Nemeth said park staff members have spent much of the week visiting hotels and setting up special activities for the Labor Day weekend. Thursday night's program, which included nocturnal tours of various exhibits, was a benefit for the marine park's Turtle Rehabilitation Program.
Coral World will be offering a variety of special Turtle Fest events and exhibits over the Labor Day weekend, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily in the Blue Water Terrace area. On Sunday, and on all of the other Sundays of September, admission has been reduced to $1 for residents. For more information, see "Coral World 8-day Turtle Fest to honor, inform", or call 775-1555.

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