Researchers Outline Buck Island Turtle Research

From left, Clayton Pollock, Jessica Stuczynski and Natalie Monnier spoke about Buck Island turtle research at a public talk Thursday in Christiansted.
From left, Clayton Pollock, Jessica Stuczynski and Natalie Monnier spoke about Buck Island turtle research at a public talk Thursday in Christiansted.

The Buck Island National Monument off the waters of St. Croix has been the site for research for 30-plus years for biologists, educators and interns, and on Thursday three of the current researchers shared some of that history with an audience in Christiansted.

Clayton Pollock is a biologist with the National Park Service, who earned his degree in environmental science at the University of the Virgin Islands in 2011 while also working as a biological science technician at the park. During graduate school, Pollock wrote his thesis on “Relative Abundance and Distribution of Sea Turtles at Buck Island National Monument, St. Croix” and gained valuable experience within the park. He resides on St. Croix.

Natalie Monnier and Jessica Stuczynski have joined Pollock in one of the longest-term research, monitoring and conservation programs for sea turtle conservation.

At the Guinea Company Warehouse in downtown Christiansted Thursday, the team gave the St. Croix community an overview of the Buck Island Sea Turtle Research Program, with some of their preliminary results and the trends that have emerged from this year’s nesting season.

The program was initiated in 1988 in order to monitor the sea turtle population and to study the nesting ecology of the population. The National Park Service Division of Resource Management handles the program.

The Buccaneer Hotel has been a very important part of the program, they said, as the hotel has partnered with the NPS for the past 25 years, providing housing and meals for the interns working on Buck Island.

Tamarind Reef Resort and Marina provided additional funding for Monnier to continue work on expanding NPS’s conservation education initiatives through the end of 2018.

Monnier graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in biological science, concentrating in ecology, evolution and conservation. As an intern, she has done all-night patrols on Buck Island’s beaches, tagged turtles, and collected biometric data on nesting hawksbill and green sea turtles.

Monnier’s mission is to spread awareness to local public schools and conservation groups about Buck Island National Monument, among many other initiatives on the island.

Monnier and Stuczynski have recorded 700 separate sea turtle activities by 67 individual turtles: 37 hawksbill and 30 green.

The activities included 126 were confirmed lays (64 hawksbill, 62 greens) with 46 relocated nests. Of those, 46.7 percent occurred in August. No leatherback or loggerhead activities were recorded during the 2018 season.

The interns gave the audience an idea of how the individual turtles are identified.

“The shell of the turtle is recognizable and is designed for protection for the leatherback species. It is the largest and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds with a diet of jellyfish,” said Stuczynski.

The hawksbill has a beak, which allows it to eat sponges as part of its diet. It is one of the smaller turtles and weighs about 200 pounds, Stuczynski said. The green turtle is the largest of the hawksbills, with a hard shell and weighing as much as 400 pounds. Their diet is mainly sea grass and their inside tissue turns a hue of green, according to Stuczynski.

“We do nightly patrols to intercept nesting females,” Monnier said. “Our nocturnal duty is mid-July to early September.”

After the turtles nest on the beach, Stuczynski added, they migrate from Buck Island to foraging grounds, where they reside between nesting.

“They hang out in these foraging grounds for a few years and come back to Buck Island,” she said.

Stuczynski is a graduate student at the University of Miami, where she studies marine conservation. She has extensive experience as an environmental educator. She said her favorite part of this project is “the intimate, raw moments we share with these critically endangered species every night. Having the opportunity to take a glimpse into these animals’ lives is incredibly special and an experience I feel so fortunate to have.”

The bioluminescent waters and killer night skies are a close second, she added.

“The female turtles are adept at hiding or camouflaging their nests so nothing will get to them. They go back to the ocean and will never see their hatchlings,” said Stuczynski.

After 60 days the hatchlings will hatch out at night, because it’s cooler, and they head straight for light and the ocean, Monnier said.

“We went every night and patrolled our beaches so we could get every female and identify them. Each of our turtles has a tag. Once they start laying, we give them a chip tag similar to the microchip a dog gets. We take measurements, genetic and DNA samples. Our goal is to record everything we can,” she said.

Diurnal season is September to November, which is harder because the researchers can only recognize them by their tracks. The tracks reveal what kind of turtle it is, what they were doing, and if they had a lay.

“We use the location 60 days later and count the number of shells that hatched and those that didn’t hatch. This is giving us the reproductive nature of the female,“ Stuczynski said.

Monnier will continue her day turtle patrol surveys at Buck Island to complete this year’s story for the 2018 sea turtle nesting season while further developing NPR’s environmental conservation social media presence, including facilitating the partnership with St. Croix’s East End Marine Park and other park partners, according to the Friends of the St. Croix USVI National Park.

Asked what she hopes to get out of this experience, Stuczynski said she looks forward to the opportunity to continue to learn and progress as a conservationist, as an individual, and as a teammate. Throughout the duration of this project, she hopes to grasp a better understanding of the challenges associated with resource management and conservation strategies outside of the mainland. Also, she hopes to share her knowledge and passion with the community while also networking and learning from the diverse group of individuals around her.

She also said she hopes for long-lasting friendships, a diversity of new experiences, and plenty adventures along the way.