Ranger in Training Camp Gives Students Hands-on Look at Life in V.I. National Park

Ranger in Training campers measure simulated turtle tracks on Salomon Beach to decipher what type of sea turtle would have made the markings.

Amid the tourists lounging on Salomon Beach last week, 13 students were spotted with measuring tape and field journals digging near what appeared to be sea turtle nests.

The St. John and St. Thomas teens were getting a hands-on look at what life as a V.I. National Park ranger would be like as part of the first ever Ranger In Training Camp, which ran from July 6 through 9.

The camp was the brainchild of VINP guide Jessica Hornbeck, who received a grant from the National Park Foundation and also partnered with the V.I. Environmental Resource Station and Friends of VINP.

Kicking off the first day of camp on Tuesday, July 6, the students heard from VINP’s Chief of Resource Management Rafe Boulon, about the vast resources within the park’s boundaries.

Following Boulon’s power point presentation, the students hiked from VINP’s Lind Point headquarters down to Salomon Beach to get their hands sandy. Hornbeck and several volunteers buried plastic eggs in fake sea turtle nests along the beach at Solomon which the students were charged with finding and identifying.

With field journals in hand, the students listened to VINP Administrative Assistant for Resource Management Esther Francis, who used to walk Salomon Beach several times a week looking for signs of sea turtles.

“When I started with VINP I was a bio tech intern,” said Francis. “One of my main jobs was to go out and look for sea turtle nests one to two times a week.”

One of Francis’ most exciting days was when a leatherback sea turtle nested at Trunk Bay, she explained.

“In 2008, a leatherback laid her eggs at Trunk Bay during the day, which was a really exciting experience,” said Francis. “I actually wasn’t working that day, but I saw pictures and we ended up digging up the nest. The eggs weren’t fertilized, but she must have had to lay them there.”

In addition to instructing students on what exactly to look for when trying to find sea turtle nests, Francis also brought along several pieces of sea turtle scutes for students to feel.

Students also heard about the different types of tracks left behind by Hawksbill, Green and Leatherback sea turtles, to help decipher which type of turtle made the nest.

Armed with the knowledge to decipher clues to determine sea turtle species, students also heard about the importance of the work.

“We come out here and check for nests because we want to see if the nest was predated upon,” said Francis.

“Mongooses are the biggest prey but dogs are also a problem, which is why they aren’t allowed on the beaches.”

“So we want to keep an eye out for predators but we also want to see how often these turtles nest on these beaches,” Francis said.

Recording weather conditions, GPS coordinates, time and date in their field journals was just the beginning of students’ Solomon Beach exploration.

With orange measuring tape in hand, three groups of students studied the different nests, measuring width and length of the fake turtle crawls leading to the simulated nests.

After wrapping up their field work at Salomon Beach, the Ranger in Training camp students headed to the VINP Visitors’ Center for lunch followed by GPS coordinate taking exercises in the park ball field. And that was just the first day of camp.

Students were in for an exciting week. After Tuesday’s field work, the teens returned Wednesday to spent two nights at the V.I. Environmental Resource Station at Lameshur Bay. While learning about astronomy, cultural history and archaeology, the two nights at VIERS were also aimed at giving students a deeper understanding of VINP resources.

Camping at VIERS was designed to provide students with a “greater understanding of knowledge gained during the camp and enhance resource stewardship by strengthening the bond between the student and the island and the VINP,” according to camp officials.