While baby sea turtles must fend for themselves once they hatch and venture into the ocean, a group of scientists is keeping a close eye on their teenage counterparts in Brewers Bay on St. Thomas.
The work of the Sea Turtle Research Project at the University of the Virgin Islands is documented in a new video that premiered on Aug. 8 at a Science Saturday virtual event hosted by UVI, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and VI-EPSCoR – the Virgin Islands Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.
Shot by Dan Mele, photographer, videographer and UVI graduate student, the three-minute video offers an up-close look at the ongoing sea turtle tagging project of UVI’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies. Aimed at elementary and middle school students, it is available for viewing on YouTube and at https://viepscor.org/kids-turtle-tagging-fun, where there also is a coloring project for children to download.
Along with Mele, Saturday’s Zoom panel featured professor Paul Jobsis, director of Marine and Environmental Studies at UVI on St. Thomas; Joseph Townsend, marine biologist and Sea Turtle Research Project intern; Liza Margolis, education outreach program coordinator at UVI; and Kitty Edwards, education and outreach coordinator for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and founder of the Science Saturday series, which is aimed at children and families.
Townsend likened the project – ongoing for 10 years now – to taking the teen turtles to a doctor’s visit. The scientists free dive as deep as 30 feet to capture the turtles so they can document their length, width and weight, tag and microchip them, and gather genetic samples. They also check for signs of sickness, such as fibropapillomatosis, or FP, a disease that can produce debilitating tumors and has recently appeared in turtles around St. Thomas and St. Croix, Jobsis said.
Brewers Bay is a perfect site for the research, boasting clear water, the seagrass that is a staple of the turtles’ diet, and young sea turtles from as far away as Honduras, Barbados and the Yucatan Peninsula, Jobsis said. He estimated there are 75 to 80 hawksbills resident in the bay, and 120 to 130 green sea turtles, ranging in age from 6 or 7 up to 20 years old when they begin to reach sexual maturity.
Those numbers are a far cry from the 1970s, when it was feared that these species might go extinct, largely due to over-harvesting, Jobsis noted. Though still critically endangered – and illegal for anyone to touch, capture or harass unless they are scientists with a permit – the turtles are making a comeback, thanks to environmental protections and ongoing research, such as that conducted at UVI.
“This helps us understand all sorts of things about the sea turtle population we have here, how healthy these turtles are and gives us an idea of the best way to continue to save these wonderful animals,” Townsend said.
Repeat customers help scientists determine if they are healthy and thriving compared to their previous measurements, Townsend said. For example, a study after hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 found that even with dramatic changes in the seagrass and sponges – a favorite food of hawksbills – “the turtles actually stayed pretty healthy,” with no change in their populations, Townsend said.
And yes, as one young viewer asked on Saturday, the scientists do nickname the turtles they tag and follow.
“The rule we have is the person who catches the sea turtle gets to name them,” Jobsis said. For example, there is We Did It, a hawksbill that has been caught nine times over the past five years and is named for the elation researchers felt at actually capturing a turtle for study – not an easy feat, Townsend said.
They must free dive, because the ascent is too fast to employ scuba gear, and the first rule is to ensure that no harm is done to the turtles or the scientists, said Jobsis. Often the turtles are wedged under a rock, and sometimes the hawksbills will bite, though because they are young, they don’t break the skin.
“Safety is the number one issue,” Jobsis stressed. “It’s fine if we don’t catch the turtle.”
Once the turtles they do capture are brought onboard for measuring, they are completely wrapped in a damp towel that helps to keep them calm. When the scientists complete their work, the turtles are returned to exactly where they were found, so they do not get lost or disoriented.
While some people are against animal research, Jobsis said, “We’re really trying to protect these animals. It’s a worthy cause.” The work also is heavily regulated, with approval and permits required from the National Marine Fisheries Service. UVI also has a review board that ensures the techniques used are safe, said Jobsis.
However, the professionals on Saturday’s panel noted that no permits are required for budding scientists to get out and explore the environment.
“Go out and observe the natural world around you,” said Mele. “And don’t forget to take pictures as often as you can. That will further your love of the environment.”