Today was the last day of the trip. The past three nights with groups patrolling the beach at Sandy Point have all been successful. Altogether, we recorded 11 nesting leatherbacks and 2 nesting green turtles, upholding Sandy Point’s reputation as one of the largest leatherback nesting sites in the Caribbean. Still, these numbers are constantly in flux; the beaches of Culebra, where we patrolled last week and saw no nesting turtles, used to be a significant nesting site (~500 nests per year), but over the past few years has decreased to only ~30 nests per year. So where did all the leatherbacks go? Interestingly, some have started nesting at Sandy Point in St. Croix, while others have been found nesting on the mainland of Puerto Rico. According to our professors and the other biologists we’ve been working with, the reason for this shift isn’t yet known and theories vary from environmental conditions to the random behavior of the turtles. Hopefully, this is one of the questions that the study of turtles will answer in the near future.
This morning was a whirl of packing and cleaning to prepare for the end of the trip. Members of the group departed at different times and needless to say, we were all very bummed to be leaving our little paradise. However, a few of us did manage to squeeze in a final trip in downtown Fredericksted! This area is very small, with only a few shops and restaurants, but it has a beautiful beachside stretch with a fort (overlooking the cruise ship pier) and made for a great final outing. While talking to the shop owners and other local residents about our trip, one thing was clear: these folks respect their turtles! We spoke with one man who remembered the days when people frequently poached and ate turtle eggs. However, nowadays things have turned around. He told us that most people now know exactly what work is being done to protect these animals, and poaching has become extremely rare. We think that this heightened awareness is one of the great successes of the turtle projects in St. Croix. There is an understanding of what the turtles do for our ecosystem and why it is important to respect and protect them. Hopefully, with this kind of support and positive community effects, turtle research will continue and spread to other places where it is needed.
Over the course of the trip, we have all learned a lot not only about sea turtles, but about the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and about the important role that society plays in conservation. With any luck, this trip was just the beginning of our adventures with the biology and conservation of turtles.