A leatherback turtle, tagged AAG322, returned again to Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge on St. Croix to lay her eggs. Scientists first spotted her 31 years ago in 1981.
“Other projects studying nesting leatherbacks have recorded females returning to beaches for 18 and 19 years but none of them coming close to 31 years,” said National Wildlife Refuge biologist Claudia Lombard in a press release.
Lombard said this particular turtle has returned many times through the years to lay a total of 59 nests at Sandy Point, a fact that is known thanks to the consistent monitoring efforts of many different scientists and volunteers.
Every leatherback that nests at the refuge receives a flipper tag with a unique number so that scientists can track individual turtles through time as well as assess the population status.
“Although AAG322 is the turtle that has been coming to Sandy Point for the longest time, there are a couple of other turtles that are not far behind her,” according to Jennifer Valiulis, sea turtle project director for Geographic Consulting, the group that currently does the refuge’s sea turtle monitoring.
According to Lombard, the peak nesting season for leatherback turtles runs from April through June. Each year between 90 and 200 leatherback turtles migrate from feeding grounds in the North Atlantic to nest at Sandy Point. The refuge hosts the largest nesting population within United States jurisdiction and in the Northern Caribbean.
The leatherback sea turtle recovery program at Sandy Point began monitoring and protecting turtles in 1977 and has since developed into one of the most unique, long-term sea turtle research and recovery efforts in the world. The number of nesting females has grown from under 20 in 1982 to more than 100 in recent years. The 2009 nesting season set a record with 202 nesting females and over 1,000 nests.
The leatherback sea turtle is the largest, deepest diving, most migratory and widest ranging of all sea turtles. The leatherback turtle is distributed worldwide in tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.
It is also found in small numbers as far north as British Columbia, Newfoundland and the British Isles, and as far south as Australia, Cape of Good Hope and Argentina. Throughout this entire range, the leatherback sea turtle is considered endangered.
Adult female leatherbacks migrate to tropical sandy beaches to nest every two to three years. Females emerge from the ocean at night and lay approximately 80 to 100 eggs deep in the sand. They nest an average of five to six times each season, typically at 10-day intervals.
While the leatherback season has waned, Lombard said St. Croix is now coming into the peak season for green and hawksbill turtles. She said that hawksbill turtles aren’t too particular where they lay their eggs so they’re likely to be spotted on all of St. Croix’s 52 beaches. She said green turtles will most likely be found at Sandy Point, Buck Island, East End Beach, Jack’s Beach and Issac’s Beach.
Alas, the last time scientists saw AAG322, she was suffering from a serious head injury that probably happened when she was hit by a boat propeller. Lombard said that when scientists first saw this turtle nesting on March 16 she appeared healthy. Two weeks later she emerged to nest again, but this time had multiple wounds to her head, mostly around her eyes.
She was able to lay one more nest about 10 days later, her last of the season, and scientists documented a rotten smell coming from her wounds.
Valiulis said, “Wounds from boat propellers are not uncommon here, and hers were especially severe.”
Sandy Point has documented a disturbing increase in the number of boat strike injuries to sea turtles. All sea turtles spend time at the surface breathing, basking in the sun and searching for suitable beach nesting habitat. At these times, sea turtles are very susceptible to boat traffic.
Sea turtles can be seriously injured or killed if hit by the hull of a boat or a boat propeller. Boats operating erratically or at high speeds do not allow turtles enough time to dive and avoid a boat.
Lombard and Valiulis urge boaters to operate boats responsibly and at safe speeds to protect sea turtles, especially when driving close to nesting beaches or foraging areas such as Buck Island or Sandy Point.