Waking up before eight in the morning is usually hard for me, if not physically impossible. But yesterday morning, I had lifted my groggy body out of bed at the crack of 6:00 am with the help of only one (one!) alarm. Maybe it was the novelty of the hot, humid climate of St. Croix that woke me up. Maybe I took my cue from hearing the movements of three other girls I share the cottage with, munching down cereal and zipping up backpacks. Or maybe I was just really excited to go on our first morning turtle patrol of the trip.
The sun was shining bright in the sky as we walked along the beach towards Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge. This season Sandy Point is closed to the public to protect the leatherback turtles that nest there. The stretch of beach we walked along to reach Sandy Point had a barrier of wave-breaking rocks, which would make it hard for turtles to come up and nest in that area. Even so, we patrolled along there to check for signs left behind by any lucky turtles that had managed to find a gap in the rocks and come ashore. Dr. Kelly Stewart was our guide, pointing out older nests and pinpointing almost indistinguishable tracks in the sand to describe what the turtle had done. The white sand stretched out before us and ended in a curve out to sea that was Sandy Point, sandwiched between a bright blue sky and even brighter turquoise waters. Various forms of life were scattered across the landscape, from ghost crabs scuttling across the sand to pelicans diving into to the sea for a meal. Even the drizzling of rain that ambushed us on our way back had an upside, in the form of the brightest double rainbow I’ve probably ever seen. I took in everything with awe, and wondered what it would be like to be a turtle that called this area its breeding grounds.
I got a second chance to find the answer to my question, when we went out for our night patrol along the actual Sandy Point. While we weren’t expecting to see actual turtles in the morning, our hopes were higher in the evening because turtles usually nest under the cover of darkness. With red headlamps on our heads, snacks in our backpacks and bug spray coating our clothes, our group of four students—lead by course teaching assistant Jeremy—ventured out into the grassy side of the refuge. Just like this morning, I was unprepared for how the landscape alone would take my breath away. The beach transformed in the moonlight, the waves hushing themselves as they rolled onto the beach, and the stars twinkling as they shone in the indigo sky. A cool wind blowing across the beach kept us alert as we walked, and reminded me that I wasn’t dreaming. The tracks of turtles stood out in sharp relief as Jeremy shone his red light on them. Like Kelly, he used whatever evidence was left in the sand to piece together what the turtle had done during its visit: where it had come up from shore, where it might have nested, and where it went back. He described reading turtle tracks as detective work, and I think the description fits well. Eventually we walked back to our car and met up with the second group of students at another location along the refuge. Unfortunately, we didn’t sight any turtles that night. But it was still an amazing experience. My favorite part had to be the breaks we took to sit down between patrols; not only because it gave my sore legs a chance to rest, but also because whenever I lay back down on the damp sand, I was greeted by a vast shimmering blanket of stars and could hear the soothing whisper of the waves. I am so lucky and grateful to have this chance to visit such an amazing and important place as part of my college studies, and I can’t wait for what comes next. We’ve got ten days in St. Croix…hopefully soon, those turtle tracks will lead us to the living, breathing reptiles themselves!