July 18, 2005 – Those taking an excursion to Sandy Point to watch endangered leatherback turtles hatch and emerge are being given a double feature this July as many Least Terns, maybe 120 nests, are on the beach, too.
But all was not to be perfect as about 26 members of St. Croix Environmental Association waited Wednesday evening for some turtles who had their noses poking through the sand to fully emerge from sand, which was damp from a late afternoon rain.
The terns were making a lot of noise as they flitted overhead. They might have known something the SEA members did not know.
Heavy dark clouds moved in from the south and what was to be called a breakaway band from Hurricane Emily hit St. Croix.
The SEA members waited patiently as they were pelted with rain and wind. Just at dusk, a break in the rain came, and the turtles came out amidst the appropriate "ohs" and "ahs." Birth time was noted, and some of the turtles were named.
The baby turtles are not ready to go swimming as soon as they pop out of the sand. They must wake up a bit and learn how to coordinate and strengthen their large front flippers, with which they seemed to be waving hello to the SEA members.
As the turtles seemed to get the stimulus they needed to prepare themselves for the waddle to the ocean, guide Amy Mackay said they needed to be released on the other side of the point in the 360-acre wildlife refuge.
It usually would have been a pleasant walk, but the rain and wind returned with ferociousness. About half the SEA members opted to sit this part out in their cars.
The ones that continued laughed a lot at themselves and the turtles.
The turtles were again set in the sand, so as Mackay said, they could imprint with the beach they were leaving. Most headed toward the sea, but at least one got turned around and started to head toward Frederiksted. He was straightened out.
At the high tide line, where there was a hill of about 18 inches, the three-inch critters took a roll but righted themselves to march on.
The dead sea grass on the beach was a worry. Everyone had heard the tales of the babies getting hung up in the seaweed on the beach and then being eaten by frigate birds in the morning.
Fortunately, as far as could be told in the limited light after sunset, all 14 made it over the sea weed line toward the water line. At this point the waves were hitting pretty hard and the little fellas, whether they were ready or not, were soon headed out toward deeper realms. The first one to reach the sea was named Emily.
Mackay, who works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that as of Wednesday the service had recorded 148 nests. Sandy Point has the largest nesting population of endangered leatherback sea turtles, the largest sea turtle in the world, under U.S. jurisdiction. There has been a steady increase in leatherback turtles nesting at the site since the National Park Service took the area over. In the first years there were less than 100 nests each year.
Least terns nest in about 15 areas on St. Croix. The locally endangered species generally has about 15 nests on Buck Island. There are so many nests on Sandy Point this year, according to Mackay, because rain this season has flooded traditional nesting spots in salt ponds.
SEA generally organizes six trips a year: three to see the mothers come ashore to lay the eggs, and three to watch the hatchlings emerge. There are two trips left this year: July 20 and July 27.
Other groups can also arrange trips directly with Mackay at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 690-9452 or 773-4554.
Mackay said that 30 people is ideal for a group, and she does not do personal tours. She said she may take as many as five groups out during a week.
Sandy Point is closed to public access until Sept. 3 because of the nesting period. After Sept. 3 it will be open on weekends during daylight hours.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.