Turtles of the Virgin Islands

 

Turtle Monitoring Program

Background

There are seven species of sea turtles in the world, and three of these inhabit the waters of St. John. The two most common are the green and hawksbill turtles, while the leatherback is rarely seen. Sea turtles spend most of their lives in the water only coming ashore to nest. Turtles travel thousands of miles a year. Visit the Sea Turtle Conservancy web site to see where they go.

Local Lore:
Trunk Bay beach is named after the leatherback turtle because they used to nest there in large numbers. But wait –they are called leatherbacks but the bay was named Trunk Bay. Why? Leatherbacks when on the ocean surface look like a steamer trunk floating so the Danes and locals called them trunk turtles, so the story goes.

Turtles are egg layers and depend on quiet, dark beaches to lay their eggs in camouflaged nests, called clutches. The eggs take between 55 to 70 days to hatch depending on sand temperature. It has been found that warmer nests produce more females while cooler nests produce more males. Hatchlings usually emerge from the nest all together, and make what appears to be a mad dash for the sea. They are extremely vulnerable at this time to predators on land and in the sea. They will become disoriented if there is artificial light in the area. Here is more information on the lifecycle of a turtle.
 

Virgin Islands Species

 
Green Turtle Flying

Photo © Caroline Rogers, all rights reserved.

Green (Chelonia mydas)

The green sea turtle can reach almost 40 inches in carapace length (top shell), weigh up to 500 pounds and feeds on sea grasses. They reach sexual maturity between 20-50 years. The green is the largest of all the hard-shelled turtles. They typically nest between June and September. They do not nest on St. John. During the season they lay about five nests (clutches), one every two weeks, and it takes about two months for the eggs to hatch.

 
Hawksbill Dancing
Photo by Caroline Rogers
Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)
Hawksbill turtles are the smallest of the sea turtles that frequent our waters. A mature hawksbill will weigh between 100 - 150 pounds and measures about 25 inches in length. Female hawksbills return every two to three years to the beaches they were born on to lay their eggs. They lay three to five nests per season with about 130 eggs each. Hawksbill turtles range throughout the Caribbean, Indonesia, Mexico, and Australia. The hawksbill has a distinctive and beautiful shell (carapace). They were harvested almost to extinction for their shell, which was used to create jewelry, combs and brushes. Their diet includes sponges, other invertebrates, and algae. They can be found along rocky ledges and coral reefs where they seek shelter.
 
Leatherback Turtle
Photo by Carrie Stengel

The Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)
The leatherback is the largest of the sea turtles and gets its name from its leathery like dark grey or black shell with whitish spots. It is the only sea turtle to lack a hard shell. These pelagic (open ocean) turtles have seven distinct ridges running the length of its carapace (shell). The leatherback is typically 4 to 6 feet long and weighs 600 to 1100 pounds. The largest leatherback ever recorded was almost 10 feet long and weighed 2019 pounds. They nest every two to three years, four to seven times a season, and lay an average of only 80 eggs. The eggs take about 65 days to hatch. Leatherbacks feed on jellyfish.

 

Threats

The greatest threats to these turtles are commercial fishing and marine pollution. They get caught in the fishing nets of large fishing vessels. Their diet includes jelly fish and unfortunately they cannot tell the difference between jellyfish balloons or plastic bags.

How can you help protect sea turtles?

  • Become a Sea Turtle Beach Patrol Volunteer.
  • Never touch or chase them! By touching, chasing or riding them, visitors disturb their eating, resting and even nesting habits.
  • Don't litter. Remember some turtles mistake balloons, and plastic for food.
  • Don't leave deep ruts, holes or tracks in the beach. The baby sea turtles get stuck in them when they hatch attempt to reach the sea.
  • Prevent light from shinning on beaches.
  • Do not drive on beaches. You risk crushing eggs.
  • Never disturb feeding or nesting turtles.
  • Never buy or sell sea turtle products.

Check out the North Florida U. S. Fish & Wildlife page on how you can help protect sea turtles.

 

Sea Turtle Stories

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    Last updated: September 22, 2018

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    St. John, VI 00830

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