Editor’s note: Amy Roberts has been a volunteer with the VINP Sea Turtle Program since 2017.
When volunteers for the Virgin Islands National Park’s Sea Turtle Program search beaches for signs of a sea turtle nest laid during the previous night, the last thing they expect to see is this:
Sadly, this is what I saw on the morning of December 20, 2022: A sub-adult green sea turtle stranded on the shoreline. Maybe it’s still alive! I thought, seeing its head move back and forth in the waves. But as a receding wave carried the creature back out to sea, its lack of purposeful movement crushed that hope.
I couldn’t mistake the fact that the turtle’s flippers were missing. Shark attack! I thought. My belief was confirmed when I noticed the alarming presence of a shark swimming back and forth.
But I was wrong.
Members of the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rescue Network soon arrived on the scene to recover the turtle’s body. They confirmed that the turtle was a female, and they noticed something else when they got close that I couldn’t quite see – four evenly-spaced slash marks towards the rear of her shell.
These wounds indicate that the turtle was diving down, attempting to avoid a boat when she was critically injured by the propeller.
Yes, that shark had probably bitten off the turtle’s flippers, but it happened after she was struck by the boat.
A sea turtle’s shell may look hard, but the animal’s spinal cord is located only one-half an inch below and is easily damaged, according to Willow Melamet, a sea turtle expert who now serves as the Marine Program Manager for the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park.
In the past two years, seven out of the 12 reported sea turtle strandings on St. John have been attributed to boat strikes, she said.
Unfortunately, turtle strandings are becoming more frequent. Ten days after I found the dead green female turtle, a stranded juvenile green turtle was found by another group of turtle patrollers at the same spot. Although a necropsy was conducted, the cause of death could not be determined.
And earlier this week, another turtle was killed by a boat strike in the British Virgin Islands.
In the Virgin Islands and elsewhere, sea turtles are killed by speeding boats, by ingesting plastic, and by becoming entangled in marine debris that prevents them from diving down to forage or resurfacing when they need to breathe.
Green turtles also develop crippling tumors from a virus known as FP, which is associated with pollution caused by humans. The tumors may impair their sight or mobility and lead to a turtle’s premature death.
One turtle that had washed up dead in Coral Bay in 2022 had a puncture wound that local experts thought might have been caused by a spear.
Although hunting sea turtles is illegal in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands permits hunting green sea turtles (considered “endangered” in the USVI) and hawksbills (considered “critically endangered” in the USVI) after they’ve attained a certain length. (The BVI does not allow the hunting of loggerhead and leatherback turtles or the harvesting of sea turtle eggs of any species.)
The BVI sea turtle hunting season runs from December through March – months chosen, no doubt, because they were thought to be beyond the typical nesting seasons of the four species that pass through our waters. But as more data is collected, there’s further evidence that some species of turtles lay their nests beyond their expected seasons.
January 2023 on St. John is a good example. “Although we are outside of our defined ‘season,’ there are currently six hawksbill nests incubating, and at least two new nests have been laid,” said Melamet.
The Sir Francis Drake Channel is just over a mile wide between Frenchman’s Cay on Tortola (BVI) and Leinster Point on St. John (USVI.) Smart as sea turtles are – and they must be clever to have survived for 200 million years – it’s doubtful they understand they can be hunted if they swim across an invisible international boundary.
So is there anything we can do in the USVI to protect the turtles that swim in our waters?
The answer is a definite “Yes!”
For one thing, boat owners can choose to install a “prop guard,” a steel cage that surrounds the propeller but allows it to move freely. The devices are marketed as a way of preventing damage to the propeller from rocks and reefs, but they also protect swimmers and sea turtles from encounters with propeller blades.
Perhaps the most effective thing boaters can do is S-L-O-W….D-O-W-N. Sea turtles come to the surface to breathe air every five to 30 minutes – depending on whether they take consecutive breaths at the surface – making them susceptible to boat collisions as they gulp air.
“Slowing down is the best thing we can do, especially in areas known to have turtles and in shallow areas where turtles can’t dive down very far,” said Melamet. Recreational boaters should also wear polarized sunglasses to see objects better in the water and assign spotters to look out for turtles close to the surface, she added.
Tonia Lovejoy, executive director of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park (which funds the Sea Turtle Program,) wants “more coordinated enforcement between the environmental agencies charged with protecting our endangered species.”
“We understand that the multitude of interdependent ecosystems that support all life on this planet do not adhere to the political or otherwise legal boundaries we define,” said Lovejoy. “So to set common goals to reach Federal and international environmental protection standards, we cannot just draw a line in the sand when it comes to monitoring and enforcement. There has to be communication and coordination between everyone involved.”
Lovejoy characterizes the Sea Turtle Rescue and Assistance (STAR) Network as “a perfect example of that coordination between multiple agencies on all three islands (in the USVI).”
“However, the STAR network, unfortunately, comes to the rescue after the damage has been done,” Lovejoy said. “We have got to do more on the prevention side of the equation.”
So what more can we humans do?
The Friends of the V.I. National Park publishes several brochures and webpages detailing other actions that can promote the survival of sea turtles.
Beachgoers should reduce their use of plastics and be diligent about picking up their trash. (Hawksbill turtles, which typically eat colorful sponges and jellyfish, can mistake plastic objects floating in the water as food.)
Everyone should wear reef-safe sunscreen to cut down on harmful chemicals in the water, as USVI law now requires.
Pet owners should follow regulations concerning bringing their dogs to the beach. (Dogs can sniff out and dig up a turtle nest while their owners are distracted.)
Swimmers should always maintain a distance of six to ten feet from any turtle and be careful not to block its path to the surface of the water. (Touching a turtle is a violation of the Federal Endangered Species Act. Chasing a turtle causes stress and makes it more susceptible to disease.)
These measures are critical if we want turtles to thrive in our waters. Wildlife experts used to estimate that one out of a thousand turtle eggs survives to reach breeding maturity. Now experts think the odds might be far worse, perhaps only one in five thousand may make it.
That’s why volunteers on St. John walk the beaches to locate nests that can then be screened to prevent predation by dogs or mongooses (or, in some places, wild pigs.)
It’s why on the morning of December 20, only half an hour before stumbling upon the dead turtle, I was full of joy. I had found this:
These are tracks made by a nesting hawksbill turtle. She had crawled up on a nearby beach the night before to lay her eggs and had disappeared back into the sea before dawn.
Although one green turtle was lost on December 20, I have hope that the 100-plus hawksbill eggs incubating below the sand right now will successfully hatch.
And I hope the hatchlings will swim away to a location nobody now knows. And that 30 years from now, when she’s mature, at least one female hawksbill will return to lay her eggs on St. John.
Click here to read a story by Olasee Davis, who helped recover the body of the turtle I found.
Click here to read an account of one recent turtle rescue.
If you see a sea turtle in distress, call the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rescue Network (STAR) at 340-690-0474.