I recently got a chance to spend some time with the folks behind the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network. SKSTMN is a non-profit organization established in 2003, spearheaded by Dr. Kimberly Stewart, whose team includes interns, graduate students, newly certified eco-tour guides, former fishermen, and volunteers ranging from Ross students to tourists to locals to expats - not as large a team as it sounds, but certainly diverse.
They don't just tag turtles, they run education & certification programs for individuals and businesses, work to keep our beaches clean, and come to the rescue for turtles in need. They are currently running a program to cut down (or eliminate) the use of plastic straws.
Incredibly, more than half the turtles in the world (and 90% of seabirds) have ingested plastic. Recently a turtle was found with a straw up his nose, and another one with a plastic fork. Really people? We can do better.
We collected almost 2 dozen straws & stirrers from a local establishment in just 30 seconds. Hopefully they, along with their guests, will join the PlasticFreeJuly effort (and beyond).
Just a couple of days before my night watch, SKSTMN was called out by a construction crew in Banana Bay. If you're on Facebook, the whole story is here, but in a nutshell, a 200-pound hawksbill turtle got trapped in an excavation pond. She would have surely drowned in the murky water, but thanks to a SKSTMN volunteer and some construction bystanders, she was pulled free and plopped back into the sea. Below photos by Tessa Wilhelm 2016. All rights reserved.
The bystanders had a lot of questions - like what makes this turtle so special? - so the mishap not only provided a teaching opportunity but showed that SKSTMN's efforts are working since the workers knew enough to call the Sea Turtle Hotline: (869) 764-6664. (Did you add the number to your contacts?)
I met up with some members of the group at Keys Beach at 8pm. While leatherbacks do come up on other St. Kitts beaches, their favorites are the Keys and North Friars on the Atlantic. Security is provided and everyone was very nice, but it was quite dark, so I got to know everyone by their voices.
The beach is divided into a grid system and into thirds, each about a half-mile long. Everyone splits up into teams and then walks their third looking for signs of life. Once at the other end, they sit for 30 minutes before walking back to see if anything has come up in the interim. They do that over and over again...all night. Each team carries a 15-pound backpack containing a toolkit filled with all kinds of things necessary to collect data should they get lucky and stumble across a female or her hatchlings. Garbage bags came in handy to sit on and to put over your head when it starts sprinkling. If that's too gaudy for you, bring a rain jacket.
if you're on an eco-tour with them, your shift ends at midnight (they keep going until 4am!), but I found the time passed quite quickly. This despite the fact that we didn't see any turtles. Turtle visits have been quite sparse this year with 17 nests on Keys, 13 on North Friars, and 2 on Timothy Beach. There have been a few "non nesting crawls" (mamas came up but didn't like what they saw and left without laying eggs). The numbers are declining every year. Are the turtles going somewhere else?
Some of you might remember in 2011 when a 500-pound leatherback came up on the beach right in the midst of what was then Ziggy's (now Vibes') revelers on The Strip in Frigate Bay. If you wondered what happened to her, she made an appearance in St. Croix in March 2016. You go girl.
Here's a photo of Mr. Theophilus Taylor, their Senior Sea Turtle Technician, on another night with a nesting leatherback following data collection. All of the work is done under the glow of red head lamps, and no flash photography is allowed so that the female isn't disturbed.
Here's one making a rare daylight appearance:
You'll note that Mr. Taylor represents what SKSTMN is all about. Like most fisherman here, he once hunted turtles. Now he does night and morning patrols and is a staunch supporter of turtle conservation efforts. Even once skeptical (and hungry) people in his community call him now when they see a turtle or turtle tracks. I also had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Juanna Berry who attended a kid's turtle camp years ago, got hooked, and is now a certified eco-tour guide who is on the night patrols and ready to answer any turtle-related questions you might have.
The first hatchlings of the season came up in early June, although it's seeming like less than 30% of hatchlings are surviving an already slow season this year. You can imagine when you add dogs on beaches, mongoose, and mongoose unwittingly leading monkeys to the nests, drivers blatantly ignoring the keep-off-beach signs, beach erosion, several-foot-high seaweed or seaweed-removal tractors & rakes, and construction equipment like bulldozers, survival rates are pretty poor and that's before they get in the water and have to deal with sharks and other marine creatures looking for a snack. Assuming all goes well though, here's a great video of what they look like when they start to come up from the sand (it can take them 6 days to dig themselves out!).
There was a surprising amount of light pollution, so we didn't need any illumination while we walked. This was convenient for us, but not great for the turtles. Not only does artificial light sometimes deter females from laying eggs, but it will disorient hatchlings which use the moonlight bouncing off the water to lead them into the sea. Another reason for the use of red bulbs.
Interested? Night watches are conducted Monday through Saturday, 8pm until 4am from mid April through mid July. That's right, for 4 months a small group of people are out all night 6 days/week looking for turtles hatchlings, or even tracks (you can actually tell an individual turtle by her tracks).
*Leatherbacks are the only soft shelled sea turtle.
*They can get up to 305cm/10ft long and can weigh up to 916kg/2,000 pounds!
*It's unknown how long they live because they live their whole lives at sea, but they don't reach sexual maturity until they're about 25 years old.
Did you know?
*They can dive to 3,900 feet and can hold their breath for 3 days.
*They're the biggest of the sea turtles, but they're also the fastest.
*They eat jellyfish.
*One leatherback was documented going 13,000 miles over about 1 1/2 years when the transmitter went out - that's more than half-way around the world (which is about 25,000 miles around).
*Of 1,000 eggs that get laid, even with some fake ones laid on top to trick predators, only 1 turtle will make it to maturity; so when someone asks "Why can't I eat just one?" That's why.
* A turtle lays her eggs, swims back out, and then may come back in using left-over sperm from a previous sexual encounter to fertilize new eggs, repeating this process until she's out of sperm.
Time to take a quick break before turtle tour #2.
Come back though, we've got turtle sightings ahead!
Ready? On Sunday, I joined the group at 8:30am. We had to re-introduce each other now that we could match the voice with the face. This time, we'd be looking for green, hawksbill, or loggerhead turtles, although only one loggerhead has been caught off St. Kitts in the past 45 years.
The difference between the 3? Among other things, their shells (if you looked closely enough) and their beaks (greens eat grass, hawksbills eat sponges, and carnivorous loggerheads eat living, crunchy things).
A team of hardy snorkelers fans out and once someone spots a turtle, they raise their hand into the air, and others come over to help catch and bring the turtle in. Your own turtle experiences have probably included a leisurely swim with or a viewing of slow, gliding turtles, but they can be surprisingly fast when they want to be. If you're on Facebook, check out a SKSTMN turtle release here.
The team gets 3 tries to catch one. If they can't get it, they leave it alone so they don't stress it out further. After some time, the team came back with 4 turtles: 1 green, and 3 hawksbill - all previously untagged juveniles.
As the team came in, stumbling onshore after a long snorkel with their heavy finds, there was much excitement; it was kind of like watching a well-oiled triage unit, except that the patients were quite healthy.
I got to hold a turtle of my very own (I'm not pictured). You transfer, hold, & release a sea turtle by holding it by the shell above its head and above its tail, tilting the body vertically. Hawksbills average about 180 pounds as adults, and greens 350 pounds, but luckily this batch was in the 30- to 40-pound range. You have about 1/2 hour to tag, measure, draw blood, take photographs and get the turtle back in the water, as you continuously pour water over its head and body, and try not to get pistol-whipped by the strong flippers.
It was a very cool experience, I highly recommend it.
Did You Know:
*Green turtles are not green, but their fat is because they only eat grass & algae (as adults). Hmm, I'm a veggie. Do you think my blood has turned green?
*Depending on the turtle, they can reach sexual maturity between 15 and 50 (!) years. So you can imagine that if a female finally comes to shore to lay her eggs after 50 years at sea, eating her or killing her for her shell would seem rather cruel and shortsighted, no?
So there you have it. If you want to volunteer for the night watches or the day tagging efforts, just let them know. If you're an owner/operator of a beachfront, water sports, or inland business who'd like to learn "voluntary sea turtle friendly practices," then become Certified Turtle Approved by the SKSTMN. If you've got a child looking for something fun to do while learning cool things, enroll them in the 2016 Sea Turtle Camp.
And finally - stay tuned because very soon SKSTMN will have an interpretive center on Keys Beach that will be both a resource for the local community and a tourist destination. It'll be a combo orientation center, research station, gift shop, patrol refuge, and most importantly, a source of revenue so they can expand their employee base and educate even more people. Plus, you'll be able to buy Sea Turtle Scientist, a book about Dr. Stewart and the organization, there!
Thanks SKSTMN for letting me tag along.