COMMENTARY by Kendal Hemphill

Swims with Turtles

A mberjacks, Blue Tangs, and bar jacks floated between my mask and the floor of the bay, ignoring me until I came within a few feet, and then effortlessly gliding away.

A remora, temporarily separated from its host fish, swam by, its silvery scales catching a ray of the bright sun that penetrated the calm water of the bay. A manta ray skimmed the sea grass along the sandy bay floor, irritated at my presence—but no sea turtles.

My wife and I were snorkeling in Maho Bay, on the north side of St. John, one of the three United States Virgin Islands, and we were specifically looking for sea turtles. We had already been to Virgin Gorda and Norman Island in the British Isles, with no luck.

On our last day of a weeklong trip we had decided to rent a jeep and snorkel as many of the bays on St. John as we could, hoping to find turtles. An island resident had told us the locals usually go to Maho, and he had heard there were turtles there lately, so we tried it first. And finally hit pay dirt, or maybe pay water.

Although there are seven species of sea turtles, only three of them inhabit the Virgin Islands, and numbers are low everywhere, so the chances of finding them are not outstanding. We never saw a hawksbill or leatherback, but after half an hour of canvassing the bay I looked up to see Jocelynn, my wife, waving at me from twenty yards away, treading water.

In her excitement she had swallowed a mouthful of sea water, but she was shouting, “Turtles!” She’d found some green turtles, the largest of the seven species, snacking on sea grass about a hundred yards off the beach in eight feet of water.

The funny thing is that we were in St. John looking for sea turtles when there are actually more along the Texas Gulf Coast than there are in the Virgin Islands. The problem is that the gulf water is generally too murky to see them from very far away, so our best shot was in the translucent bays of the USVI and the BVI.

No matter where sea turtles are found, they need our help. All sea turtles are currently listed either as endangered, threatened, or vulnerable, due to poaching live turtles and their eggs, accidental catching, and having their nests destroyed by predators and inattentive beach goers. Efforts are being made to help the turtles, but it seems to be an uphill battle.

The Texas Gulf Coast is home to five of the seven species, including the leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead, green, and the Kemp’s ridley. Leatherbacks are listed as vulnerable, loggerheads and greens are endangered. Hawksbills and Kemp’s ridleys are critically endangered.

Turtles typically refuse to fill out census reports, but the number of nesting female Kemp’s ridley sea turtles still living is roughly estimated at 1,000 individuals, making it the most endangered sea turtle in the world.

One of the problems for these turtles in the wild is that, although they spend almost all their lives in the water, they have to come on land to lay their eggs. The females return to the beach where they were hatched, crawl onto the sand, and dig a nest.

The number of eggs per nest varies with the species, but range from 110 to over 200. Once the eggs are laid, the mothers head back to the sea, their job done—no family reunions for sea turtles.

After about two months the eggs hatch, all at once, and the hatchlings make a dash for the water. This is when the hatchlings are the most vulnerable to land and sea predators, so they make their run at night, but many still fall victim to hungry enemies.

Those that survive must reach maturity before they can reproduce, and the age varies between species. Green sea turtles don’t come of age until they are at least 20 years old.

Besides predators, one of the major killers of sea turtles is, oddly, plastic bags. The turtles love jellyfish, but can’t tell the difference between them and plastic bags, which they can’t digest. So apart from being watchful and considerate at the beach, picking up your own litter, along with someone else’s, might be the best help you can offer these beleaguered creatures.

Once Jocelynn found the green sea turtles in Maho Bay, we swam with them and took pictures and videos for about an hour. They cropped sea grass from the bay floor for a while, and then, every five minutes or so, they would slowly fan their flippers and float to the surface for a breath of air. They seemed entirely unperturbed by our presence, and it was a privilege to share the bay with such majestic denizens of the sea.

It would be a shame to lose them.




Email Kendal Hemphill at contactus@fishgame.com


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