Sea Turtle Ecology

Wheels up to St. Croix: Day 6
by -- May 2nd, 2016

After five days of wrangling green and hawksbill sea turtles and punching holes in their flippers for science, we were off to the US Virgin Island of St. Croix. In the midst of our usual 5 a.m. delirium, it was time to say goodbye to our house and ride the ferry back to the main island and depart from San Juan. After threatening to rain all week we finally got our downpour on the ferry. A select few of hardcore students stayed on the upper deck and endured the drenching, although the mildew on my clothes now tells me that it probably wasn’t worth it.
The terminal area for Seaborne airlines looks like an old ratty bus station, and we huddled together at an abandoned gate to discuss our friend Carlos’ paper on fibropapillomatosis in the green turtles we had just encountered. The disease is likely caused by a virus, and while benign, it causes tumors to grow that can cause serious issues for the turtles if they grow in areas such as the eyes or mouth. Unfortunately, human developed areas are linked to higher prevalence of the disease.
After our brief seminar it was wheels up to St. Croix to join Kelly’s Turtle Team and perform beach patrols for nesting leatherback sea turtles! After a quick photo shoot, courtesy of Jeremy, in front of an airport mural it was time to jump into our van and head to Cottages by the Sea. Leaving the airport, I saw a billboard introducing St. Croix as the home island of the great NBA basketball player Tim Duncan. As a lifelong basketball fan I thought it was pretty cool to know that I’d be visiting his home, however I was shocked to learn that not a single person in our 12-person crew had even heard the name Tim Duncan. Come on people, next you’ll be saying you don’t know who Peyton Manning is.
We heard Cottages was nice, but we didn’t realize it would be this nice. Going from the tiny one floor flat in Culebra to the luxury sweets at Cottages was definitely a welcome sight. I think we were all grateful to no longer have to share one toilet between all of us. By the time we settled in, it was about time to meet the turtle team for a lovely dinner of chicken, rice and beans. The five girls on the turtle team all seemed really passionate and excited about their work, and of course a little crazy to voluntarily become nocturnal for 14 weeks.
Finally, it was time for our patrols! We heard so much about them from Kelly that we were bursting to get out to the beach! We mentally prepared for the half marathon we had been told about, with our only breaks consisting of pushups, crunches and leg lifts. In reality though, the beach patrols consist mostly of sitting, waiting and looking at the stars. The area covered is less than two miles and a night’s work consists of walking for about five minutes then sitting for about forty… until you see a turtle that is.
It was about midnight, we were pushing twenty hours of being awake and were all fading fast. Whispers hoping for our departure became whines for bed, but of course those are the perfect times for a turtle. Just as we had given up and began wandering in darkness to the trail head where our cars were parked, we saw the glow of read headlamps up ahead with a small dark patch at their feet. As we approached, that small patch transformed into a giant sea turtle, our first ever leatherback! She was digging when we arrived and before I knew it there were around 40 people huddled near by to watch her nest. Soon enough we went in for a closer look, and I found myself looking into the eye not of a sea turtle, but of Godzilla. This big reptile was not a turtle, but a dinosaur! She was huge and ancient looking, a relic from a past era. This turtle has been around for millions of years and here on the beaches of St. Croix we stepped into a time machine to share the shore with a dinosaur.
She was a machine. Paying no attention to the boy scouts, Turtle Watch tour or baffled Duke students watching her, she went through the steps to build her nest. She didn’t even notice the trained Turtle Team taking her measurements and punching a metal tag into her back flipper. I suppose dinosaurs don’t have the time to care about such trivial things. This was a mother on a mission, and she was working hard. The digging and laying process took about twenty minutes and soon the next patrol called the Turtle Team away. The crowd of little munchkins dissipated with them, leaving just our class alone with the turtle.
I lay on my stomach about fifteen feet away from the turtle while the rest of our group took a similar position on the opposite side of her. She began throwing sand around with her powerful front flippers in an action called disguising. My whole body shook every time she smacked the ground. Slowly and unexpectedly, she turned towards me and inched her way up the beach, huffing and throwing sand the whole way. I lay perfectly still as she approached, overhearing Kelly in the background say the turtle must be mistaking me for a log. With my chin in the sand I watched as this behemoth crawled her way towards me, creating mini earthquakes with every flipper slap to the sand. Laying at her level it felt as if a mountain was moving to consume me. But before she could, the switch flipped in her head and her body changed gears, causing her flippers to grip instead of throw the sand, and she spun around and crawled back down the beach into the sea.
We all stood silent for a few minutes under the moon and starlight with goofy grins plastered across our faces. Twenty-two hours earlier we were in Culebra riding in a golf cart, now here we were watching Godzilla return to the depths. The adrenaline was pumping and still no words needed to be said, but we all shared the same thought.

What a night, now its time for bed!

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