by Rosemary Kimble
As we turn the bend toward the north side of the island, the current changes from gentle to fierce. I plunge my oar into the treacherous aqua blue water, and yell to my friend, "Paddle harder! Harder!". We are now in rough seas and dangerously close to the jagged rocks along the shore. I worry that our kayak might get tossed against them if we do not get out of the current quickly. I think to myself, "What have I gotten myself into this time?".
My friend Kristina and I are in the Virgin Islands where we have come to help monitor the nesting of endangered sea turtles. It is my first wildlife volunteer experience, a position which I procured after seeing an article from the US National Park Service that volunteers were needed on St. John Island. It was an island I already adored, so I reached out to them and was put in touch with a ranger. I am told that there is no real volunteer program in place so if I come, I will be helping design it. I will have free accommodations in a tent by the beach, I just have to pay for my travel expenses and food. "Sounds great!", I tell the ranger. I agree to be there for five weeks. Kristina will stay for ten days. I am excited to be visiting this natural wonder again, living on the beach in my favorite paradise.
I have invited my friend to help because I know she needs a break from the city and an island vacation will be good for her. Plus, I do not want to be alone for this new experience and she will be great company.
I have no idea what to expect. A theme that will ring true for nearly every journey I embark upon from here on out.
I arrive a few days ahead of her to assess the situation, taking the first couple of days to soak it all in. I spend the time lounging on the pristine beach and snorkeling in the prismatic water, teaming with dozens of tropical fish and sea turtles. It feels like a dream to be here.
It will be our job to monitor four beaches, seeking sea turtle tracks and the nests that they lead us to. I quickly find out that to get to each beach we have to walk or hitchhike along the only road, several miles to each location. It is already muggy at 9 am on my first-day monitoring. I have walked for more than an hour to reach my first beach and I am drenched in sweat, exhausted from the heat. "This is not going to work.", I tell myself.
By the next day, I have convinced the ranger to talk the Cinnamon Bay kayak rental into allowing me to borrow a kayak for my work while I am there. I have never actually sea kayaked before but I know well how to control a canoe on a river. I am sure it can't be any harder.
Yet here I am, trying to control this boat in strong waters, realizing that sea kayaking is a lot harder than I thought it would be. I had had a couple of days to practice on my own but getting to the other beaches was not a problem. It is now, trying to traverse raucous waters to get us to Trunk Bay. Kristina has never been in a canoe or a kayak. She is what we call a lily paddler, someone who does not yet know how to use their strength to move the boat with a paddle. She is trying her best but I can see that it will mostly be up to me to get us to safety.
It feels like the boat is going nowhere, the ocean is strong but the wind is just as powerful, seeming to stop us from moving at all. The waves keep throwing water in my face, making it difficult to see where we are going. All I can do is paddle harder and faster. I use every bit of strength I have to get the boat to turn the corner into calm water, where the wind finally dies down. Exhausted we slump down in the boat, feeling the gentle rocking of the much calmer sea now. We both start to laugh, impressed that we made it. We look out onto the crystal blue water, the white sands of Trunk Bay ahead of us, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and we know the effort was worth it.
After doing our beach monitoring, we waste no time gearing up in our snorkels and fins. We jump into the refreshing clear water to see what magical marine life resides below. It is even more gorgeous than where we reside at Cinnamon Bay! Trunk Bay is known to be one of the best sites anywhere on earth for coral reef snorkeling. There are large parrotfish in neon blues and yellows swimming around us. Angelfish the size of my hand elegantly glide by, their long feathery fins flowing behind them. A large school of tiny silver fish dart back and forth over brilliant purple sea fans, chartreuse elkhorn coral and brain coral. Tentacles of orange sea anemone, home to many clownfish, gently flow with the small currents that move on the ocean floor. A true octopus's garden. The occasional sea turtle floats by, making its way under tunnels of rock formations and quickly swimming out of sight.
This is our routine every day and we live for it. We see a multitude of beautiful sea creatures including stingray, small sharks, and jellyfish with every swim. My first squid sighting felt more like an alien encounter. Eight translucent oblong-shaped creatures sitting together in a perfect diamond formation. They are completely still, with large eyes protruding from the sides of their heads. They seem just as curious to observe me as I am them. The sea turtles that we have come here to help save are like majestic dinosaurs of the sea. They look prehistoric compared to everything around them. Green sea turtles are the most common. We hope to see the legendary leatherback sea turtle, which can be as large a Volkswagen beetle.
Over the next few days, our kayak trip to Trunk Bay gets easier. At least we know how to handle it now and Kristina has become a much stronger paddler.
Our living situation is not the dreamy accommodations that Kristina imagined. It's her first time camping and it leaves much to be desired. It's hot as hell in our tent, even after the sun goes down. We hope no mosquitos have come in with us or we won't get any sleep. They are bad enough outside of the tent, in the thick secondary forest that surrounds us. We pass out by dark each night. We have had a full day of monitoring sea turtle nests and exploring, starting at six am. All of our food is stored in an old cooler that does not keep ice for more than a day and getting to a store to buy more is a task. But Kristina graciously sticks it out, happy to be away from the city and enjoying exploring this beautiful island.
When her time is up, we are both sad that she has to go. I help her haul her leatherback turtle sized suitcase out of the woods. It does not roll well over the thick layer of leaves and stones on the forest floor and we have to carry it most of the way to the parking lot. From there we say goodbye. I will miss sharing more adventures in paradise with her. Then the ranger gives her a lift to the island ferry and Kristina heads back to New Orleans.
I am on my own now. I do my daily monitoring, handling the kayak on my own with some challenges but I am more comfortable with it now. Soon after, a new volunteer arrives. She knows a little more about kayaking and has experience volunteering with sea turtles in the Galapagos. There it was her job to autopsy the dead and document what is inside of each turtle to help determine why it died.
I am learning some of the unsavory aspects of wildlife management as well. The mongoose was introduced to the islands decades ago to help control the rat problem. Since then they have become the biggest threat to sea turtle eggs. They are constantly seen darting into holes in the ground, rampant throughout the island. Cute creatures but a total nuisance. Chris, the ranger shows us how they are trying to manage the population. Many years ago, forestry management tried baiting them with poison but soon realized how harmful it was to other animals. Now the only option is to capture them in cages and then euthanize them. Before witnessing this, I am sure it will be a bit traumatizing for me to see but I feel it is something I need to know more about. Then I realize that the screeching of the creature when we approach the cage before the euthanizing gun is even put to its head is enough to give me nightmares. Seeing the euthanizing procedure is tough to take. The volume of mongoose, make it an impossible task to keep up with, regardless. Because of this, it is not a method that they will maintain for long.
Every day we walk the beach at sunrise looking for turtle tracks. Rarely do we see them. These beaches are so tourist-heavy that if there were tracks, they are walked over before we get to them. Even in five weeks, the only turtle nest I find is an empty one, with rubbery decaying shells from recently hatched baby turtles lying around it. Maybe they go to other places to lay eggs these days? But that is doubtful because turtles are known to lay eggs in the same spot their entire lives. The babies then come back to where they were born to begin laying the next generation of eggs.
Tourists from cruise ships leave tons of trash on the beach, so we end up spending some of our time cleaning up after them. We think they should be fined for trashing the beach. But that too will take more resources. The cruise ship tourists cannot even be bothered to stop walking on the fragile coral reefs when the lifeguard blows a whistle and yells for them to get off.
I am realizing that sometimes it's hard to be a volunteer in wildlife management. There are parts you cannot un-see. Parts that make you more disgusted with humans than you were before.
But I also see the beauty in getting to work this closely with nature. Feeling like you are making at least a small difference for wildlife. Despite the drawbacks, I have had five rewarding weeks living by the sea, getting to know the sunrise and sunset, learning about the plentitude of sea creatures that reside here. It's been a beautiful experience and one that only makes me want to do more. Before I even go home, I am already researching my next destination for wildlife volunteer work.
And before I leave the Virgin Islands, I will have one last adventure. I have been invited to visit a new friend on a neighboring island. It will be a short seaplane ride to get to St. Croix and the tiny plane will only hold a few people. It's my first ride in one and landing on the ocean makes the trip seem even more exciting.
Once I tell my new friend Emily my story of not getting to see any sea turtle nests or babies, she contacts a local friend who works with a sea turtle sanctuary there in St. Croix. We are hoping that she can accommodate us for a visit. We luck out as the following day is the last day that the sanctuary is open to visitors for the season. The roster is already full but once she hears of the work I was doing on St. John Island, she makes an exception for us to come.
The experience is more than I could have hoped for. We are given a tour with a group of school children and shown the beach where leatherback sea turtles have laid their nests. It is an incredible sight to see. In just one small area of the beach, numerous huge indentations lie where enormous turtles have dug away the sand and deposited their eggs in the cool ground. It is even more incredible to imagine that each nest holds eighty to one hundred eggs.
Considering what the infants have to go through to survive after hatching, it is easy to see why so many eggs are laid at once. Once hatched they will have just enough nutrients in their soft bodies to swim the first few hundred miles to a place in the sea where a river of micronutrients is waiting to be consumed by them. It is the only food small enough for these tiny creatures to eat and digest. It will take two weeks to swim there if they can survive the many large predators they encounter along the way. Only one in one thousand will ever make it to adolescence a few months from now.
After viewing this awesome site, we are escorted to the seashore where we are each given one tiny leatherback sea turtle, the size of the palm of your hand. I cannot contain myself. I start to cry for the blessing to be able to hold one of these tiny creatures that I have dreamed of seeing for weeks now.
These are all babies whose nests were endangered and had to be relocated, so it is a miracle that they are even alive. Releasing them has to be done in the most natural way possible and we are not allowed to intervene, no matter what.
On cue, we all take two steps toward the ocean as instructed, before laying our babies on the beach and allowing the waves to wash them away. All of the kids are cheering for their little ones to swim into the ocean. I watch in dismay, while my baby sea turtle and so many others are tumbled by the first oncoming wave. It is on its' back now, getting pummeled in the waves and trying to gain balance to swim upright. I worry if they will even survive this!
But for being only infants, they are strong creatures. In a few moments, they have been tossed far enough into the ocean that they can safely swim away. Seeing this my eyes well up with tears again. I give thanks for the blessing to be able to do one more, tiny thing, to help in the proliferation of these magnificent creatures.