We are nearing the peak of leatherback nesting season and have recorded some very interesting things about our island population. The most encouraging news is that we have two nesters this year who were originally tagged in 1988, making them champion survivors! These old turtles have made it through so many threats over the years (31 since they first nested), and it’s amazing to be welcoming them back! They are Caroline and Max (adopted by Ellen Drago and Anne Gonzales respectively – our adoptions!). We hope to see them back in a few more years. We think that these two turtles are likely to be 45 to 55 years old, based on an estimated age to maturity of 15 to 25 years.
To date, we have 55 nests on the refuge and we have identified 20 individual turtles. The latest turtle found was Nelson (YYL914) on 21 May! She was a great find because she has not been seen since 2010. She was adopted by Genevieve Itamunoala for her six grandchildren (surname: Nelson!). Genevieve has been a huge supporter of the project and also adopted Nelson’s nests for this year!
We had hoped that this might be the record year (the last was in 2009, so we are due), but we had a stretch where no turtles at all were observed nesting. Unfortunately, decreased nesting seems to be part of a wider phenomenon throughout the Atlantic, and many other nesting beaches are recording serious declines in the number of nests and the number of turtles visiting. Project managers at all of the nesting beaches are working hard to figure out why and major assessments of the leatherback population in the Northwest Atlantic are underway by several groups (including government agencies). Currently the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists leatherbacks as Vulnerable (to extinction) but recent trends around the Caribbean are very worrying, as consistent declines have been recorded since about 2010.
However, we have Caroline and Max to give us hope that our turtles are out there and that they will be returning to nest in the coming seasons. Sandy Point represents a critical link in understanding what happens with the population because it has been studied for so long and it is still the most densely nested leatherback beach in the Northern Caribbean. One thing that we have observed in the last few years is that our turtles are taking nearly 5 years to return to nest after first being observed (which is called the remigration interval), when during the 1990s and 2000s, refuge staff and project leaders regularly saw nesters every 2 to 3 years. Now is the time to be especially vigilant in keeping the monitoring and research effort going, because individual nester information like remigration interval is really important in understanding how the population is doing. Help keep the effort going!
We will continue to patrol to find nesting turtles and to protect their nests at this amazing place!
The St. Croix Leatherback Project is supported by the Sea Turtle Census Initiative, which is sponsored by The Ocean Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3) organization, based in Washington, D.C., but working globally to protect our oceans.