It’s the middle of July which means that Geographic Consulting’s night patrols have come to an end for the 2013 season. Although there are still a few leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) laying nests at Sandy Point Wildlife Refuge in St. Croix USVI, they are few and far between. The turtles will now start their long journey northward to replenish their energy by pigging out on jellyfish, their primary food source. This photo of the leatherback’s mouth is from myamazingearth.com and was brought to our attention by Claudia Lombard of US Fish and Wildlife.
Although wildlife biologists are still entering data (and double checking our work), it appears that we encountered 85 individual leatherbacks during our night patrols in the 2013 season. This represents the lowest number of nesting leatherbacks seen at the refuge since 1998. Although this is a troubling number to report, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the population is in trouble. The late winter up north seemed to cause the season to start slowly and a little later than normal. It might also have convinced some of our regular nesters to wait an extra year before coming back to nest. Next year might be a very busy year for us, as many of those turtles that took the year off decide to join us again. We will definitely be looking very closely at the number of turtles that nest at Sandy Point next year so we can determine whether 2013 was just a strange year, or if this is an indication the population is declining. This is why it is so important to continue monitoring the nesting population every year. We can differentiate between long term trends and single oddball years.
An interesting side note to this low number of nesters is that, so far, we have recorded about 355 nests and are still counting. Compared to other seasons, this is an average number of nests from a below average number of turtles. In fact we have already exceeded the 337 nests laid in 2010, a year when 94 turtles nested at Sandy Point. Although we have fewer nesting turtles this year, they are doing their best to make up for the turtles that aren’t here by laying anywhere from one to eleven nests each, averaging over 4 nests per turtle.
We will now be concentrating our efforts on excavating hatched nests to see how successful they were this year. We’ll tell you more about that in our next blog update.