Turtle Scientists Find Juvenile Hangout at UVI

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Photo courtesy of University of Virgin Islands.

Researchers at the University of the Virgin Islands say they met a major milestone when they tagged their 100th sea turtle earlier this year. Scientists working with UVI’s Center for Marine and Environmental Science (CMES) and the VI Sea Turtle Project (VISTP) documented their find in their own back yard at Brewer’s Bay.

Marine scientists and graduate students working at CMES and VISTP said they’ve tagged turtles passing through the bay at almost twice expected rate. “When we started tagging and documenting sea turtles in the fall of 2014, Dr. Paul Jobsis and I estimated the number of turtles using Brewer’s Bay and Hawksbill Cove to be around 40-50 turtles, at most,” said Scott Eanes, a UVI graduate. Eanes is the founder of the turtle project.

The VI Sea Turtle Project is a community based water research group dedicated to the preservation of endangered sea turtles. Eanes spoke with satisfaction about the capture and tagging of the 100th turtle in Brewer’s Bay and in a cove near the Cyril King Airport.

“The estimation was based off of previous research by Dr. Jobsis and Kemit Amon Lewis, but almost three years later we were really wrong and we couldn’t be happier,” he said.

Eanes is best known for naming the bay, south of the runway, Hawksbill Cove. He and Dr. Jobsis started tagging turtles in 2014 as part of Scott’s Masters of Arts in Marine and Environment Science thesis and they haven’t look back.

Jobsis, the director at CMES said he was equally pleased. “This has been a long difficult road only accomplished through a lot of hard work and teamwork. Scott’s passion and commitment to understanding and protecting sea turtles has been crucial to our success,” he said.

Among the discoveries gleaned through years of tagging and tracking, Jobsis said, is the types of turtles frequenting the area, which ones stay and for how long.

“Every turtle we document is measured and weighed and receives a series of identification tags and a small genetic sample is taken.” Jobsis continued, “This allows us to know how fast our turtles are growing, how many we have, how they are using the bays, and possibly, where our turtles are from in the Caribbean. It also means that when these turtles reach adulthood and leave the USVI they have a greater chance of being identified, wherever they go next,” he said.

Researchers say green sea turtles and hawksbill turtles are most frequently seen around the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of the 100 tracked and tagged are juveniles. “Some stay for about three years, but they don’t know where they go from there,” the center director said.

Green sea turtles tend to stay in the study area while hawksbills are tracked in transit. St. Croix has the bulk of nesting activity. This means the juvenile turtles most frequently seen by tourists, snorkelers and divers around St. Thomas and St. John are more likely to roam. A movement study currently under way is expected to shed light on where they came from.

The scenario as described by scientists sounds a lot like Spring Break: juvenile turtles on a spree to mingle with others like them in a college setting before journeying on towards adult responsibilities.

Traveling turtles are believed to originate in other Caribbean islands, Central America, Florida and possibly Brazil. One of the joint research project goals is to discover the origin of the turtles using Brewer’s Bay and Hawksbill Cove. “We don’t know where all they come from. We plan to do some genetic testing that will tell us where they’re from,” Jobsis said.

“We need to find out where our turtles are coming from because each week we are out there we see untagged turtles, and it would be great to know where our turtles come from so we can make sure they get home to nest, ensuring the next generation of turtles in the USVI,” Eanes said. “And as we see more turtles we still haven’t documented, it makes you wonder just how many turtles call these two bays home. If you love sea turtles this is really an exciting location to study.”

The research team from UVI and the VI Sea Turtle Project would also like to remind the general public that this research is permitted through the National Marine Fisheries Services and it is against the law to harass, touch, or retain sea turtles without the required permits. UVI and the VISTP plan to continue their research through 2019.