Tracking Endangered Sea Turtles

BY APRIL KNIGHT

All research done by the V.I. Sea Turtle Project under the University of the Virgin Islands Marine and Environmental Science Center is conducted pursuant to a National Marine Fisheries Service permit.


          The seabed shimmered a dark green, barely reached by the filtered midday light. Darker coral lay in scattered splotches. The ocean was quiet as a womb, disturbed only by the rasp of his breathing into the mask.

     Scott Eanes strained his eyes and drifted forward. Alongside three other marine researchers, Eanes was combing Brewer’s Bay, a small patch of ocean on St. Thomas’ southwest end, quietly searching for the amphibious subjects of his research: pre-pubescent hawksbill sea turtles.

     Eanes, a graduate marine biology student at the University of the Virgin Islands, founded the V.I. Sea Turtle Project nine months ago. Closely linked to his university research, the local non-profit tags, tracks and monitors the population of endangered hawksbill sea turtles around St. Thomas, ultimately to protect them.

    “Hawksbills are considered a ‘keystone specie,’” said Eanes. “They make the ecosystem stronger, able to withstand disturbances like hurricanes, just by being there.”

      First, Eanes had to find them. Finally, a brief shout cut across the howling sea breeze: “Turtle!”

Cletus1

Eanes, far right, holds a recaptured juvenile hawksbill sea turtle.

      In unison, the three human bodies bobbing quietly on the water converged in one area. Contrary to the reputation of their ground-based counterparts, sea turtles move like underwater missiles, nothing but quick green flashes shooting through the water to the unprepared eye. When Eanes spotted the turtle, he lost no time, diving in a straight line toward the small, dark shape against the rocks, grabbing it quickly and swimming toward a waiting research boat.

       It turned out to be a juvenile hawksbill already tagged by Eanes’ team, judging from the tiny, metal clips on its flippers. According to his tag, his name was Cletus.

       “Looks like we caught him several months ago,” said Eanes, holding up the struggling turtle. “We’ve tagged about 30 so far.”

       Cletus, only a couple of years old, was a foot in length from head to tail, his rubbery shell a dark pattern of overlapping diamond scales. His strong flippers slapped the surface of the boat with resounding cracks, his beak-like mouth, after which his specie was named, snapping at the researchers’ questing hands.

Scott, in his "Turtle Power" shirt, and fellow researcher Samu Mitchell place a wet towel over Cletus to calm him.

Scott, in his “Turtle Power” shirt, and fellow researcher Samu Mitchell place a wet towel over Cletus to calm him.

Eanes took a sloppy wet towel, pressed down on Cletus with it to keep him calm, and quickly went to work. He measured Cletus crosswise and lengthwise and took his weight. Instead of injecting a tracker microchip into Cletus’ neck, Eanes ran a black device the size of a TV remote along the turtle’s body to check if the tag was working properly.

     “He’s grown one pound,” announced a beaming Eanes, eliciting cheers from his colleagues.

     Ten minutes later, Cletus was placed gently back into the water.

    Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 10.41.49 PM “We hope he makes it,” said Eanes, watching Cletus disappear quickly into the depths. “He already passed the most dangerous stage of his life, it’d be a shame if we lost him now.”

 

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