Boat Slow: Turtles Crossing

Boat Slow: Turtles Crossing

Peak nesting season for hawksbill and green turtles is getting under way and boaters in coastal waters should go slow and keep an eye out for turtles surfacing to breathe, Park Service and Fish and Wildlife officials say.

Already this season, two hawksbills have been found dead on beaches with grievous wounds from motorboat engines, according to Claudia Lombard, a wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge.

In the last few weeks, one was found at Tamarind Reef on the beach and the other on the beach at Green Cay National Wildlife Refuge, Lombard said. « The way the currents run, we are not sure where the boat strikes occurred. Probably somewhere else and they drifted to where they were found, » she said.

The season began in March, but is reaching its peak around now.

« This is the time of year that both green and hawksbill turtles are migrating back to beaches on St. Croix to nest, » Lombard said. « So when operating boats, especially in areas with coral reefs or seagrass beds, both of which are feeding areas for the turtles, please drive at a safe speed. They dive quickly, but when they come up to the surface to breathe, they may not be able to tell where the sound is coming from. »

Hawksbill Juvenile at Salt River (photo courtesy of National Park Service).

Turtles nest all over St. Croix, but especially the eastern half, around Buck Island, Green Cay, and the East End Marine Park, according to Resource Management Chief Zandy Hillis-Starr of the National Park Service.

The turtles take up to 30 or 40 years to reach adulthood and begin breeding, then keep laying eggs for decades more, so the loss of breeding females could have a long-term impact on their populations, Hillis-Starr said. They are especially vulnerable because they return to the same place year after year.

« They are literally Crucian-born turtles who return to their beaches over and over again, and we have to be attentive because they cannot change what they do, » Hillis-Starr said. The breeding process is not well understood, but when females come to lay, they may stay up to two months, laying up to five separate clutches of eggs, she said.

« They are only on the beach 45 minutes to two hours. Then they are out in the waters near-shore. So if you are traveling anywhere along the shoreline in Christiansted, Green Cay, East End Marine Park, keep a forward look out and recognize that when they rise to the surface you may only see a little bit of head, » she said.

Once they surface, they take a deep breath, which makes them more buoyant and may mean they cannot dive out of the way. « You may see it dive, but it may be just two feet below, and that is where the propellers are, » she said.

The nesting season for V.I. sea turtles (leatherback, green, loggerhead and hawksbill) begins in March and continues through December of each year. Leatherback season is earlier. Hawksbill and green turtles are reaching their peak now. Loggerheads come a little later.

There are several key nesting areas on St. Croix including Buck Island Reef National Monument; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge; St. Croix’s east end beaches – Jack’s and Isaac’s Bays; and on the south shore: Southgate, Coakley Bay and Hay Penney Beach. Nearly all beaches, however, on St. Croix are utilized by nesting sea turtles, according to the Park Service.
Beaches on Buck Island Reef National Monument will be patrolled nightly to protect nesting turtles and to continue long- term research on these endangered sea turtles in the territory beginning July and will last into October.
If you encounter turtles nesting or hatchlings on any St. Croix beach, it is important to remember five things:
– All sea turtles are protected throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Beach users need to closely follow all regulations, especially pertaining to beach fires, dogs, no digging in dry sand and never using tent stakes. Violations are subject to prosecution under civil and criminal laws and charged heavy penalties.
– Boat slow. Boat operators should drive cautiously; sea turtles rise slowly to the surface to breathe, and it takes them several seconds to dive to safety when they hear an approaching motor boat.
– Shield Lights. Bright lights along beaches will disorient nesting adult sea turtles and hatchlings. Coastal property owners are encouraged to modify or discontinue use of outdoor lights.
– Keep your distance. Do not interfere with nesting or hatchling sea turtles; observe from a distance. Do not use flashlights or flash photography.

If someone finds an adult sea turtle, nest or hatchling sea turtle in distress please contact one of the following parties:
– If you come across an injured or dead sea turtle, you can call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sea Turtle Assistance & Rescue Network (STAR) 24 hours a day at 340-690-0474; or the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources at (340) 513-3170 or (340) 643-0811.
– If those do not work immediately, you can call National Park Service Resource Management 24 hour line at (340) 277-6794; NPS Headquarters Christiansted at (340) 773-1460 (8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.); at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge/USFWS at (340) 773-4554 or (340) 690-9451; and all other locations DPNR Enforcement at 340-244-9066.
You can also call 911 and they will forward the call appropriately, according to Hillis-Starr and Lombard.