Véronique Ansermet's Diary
Saving the Leatherback Turtle, St. Croix

Monday, August 11, 2003
Tuesday, May 27, 2003
Monday, May 26, 2003
Sunday, May 25, 2003

Saturday, May 24, 2003
Friday, May 23, 2003
Thursday, May 22, 2003
Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Related Sites

Monday, August 11, 2003

I had some friends notice that I did not enter anything for the last days I spent in St. Croix. A friend even asked me if I have been attacked by a leatherback and left Alcoa!

So, let me clarify some things about the leatherback turtles. They will not attack you! They eat jellyfish and are not aggressive when they are coming to nest on the beach. I never met one while swimming or diving. Most probably, one would just dive to escape you in the same way they do in order to escape sharks attacks.

The last three days I spent on the beach with the turtles and my Earthwatch colleagues were a bit more relaxed. This wasn't because we had less turtles but because we were just getting more used to working with them. Ruby and I were very quick and could tell when a turtle was ready to lay her eggs. We even managed to sleep while waiting. At the beginning, we were checking on these poor turtles every five minutes!

On the last two days, we had the great opportunity to meet Peter Dutton, who is the scientific leader of this project. He had many tricks to teach us about the turtles as he has been studying them for a very long time. For example, he knows exactly when a turtle is just relaxing her flipper or is really ready to lay—the difference is really difficult to notice for inexperienced eyes.

The last night we all had a very nice dinner at the restaurant and then headed one more time to Sandy Point. I was on the beach for just two minutes when our first turtle appeared. For our last night, we had the chance to be busy all night with the turtles. All of my Earthwatch colleagues also enjoyed my French accent on the radio one last time and laughed about my new passion—Pop-Tarts®. They are really nice to eat on the beach, and we don't have them in Switzerland.

This experience has really been the time of my life—not only because I was able to be in close contact with an absolutely fascinating animal but also because I had the occasion to meet wonderful people and real friends. Being in contact with nature is an eye-opener about the responsibility we all play in protecting our environment. We can not only rely on people like Peter and Jeanne who have decided to dedicate their life to this kind of project; we must also rely on ourselves to do the tiny things that will make the difference.

I am planning to continue to make a difference next year, probably in Namibia saving the cheetah. I plan to share this extraordinary experience with my mother.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

I had time to count just two shooting stars before the turtles were here. Since Ruby and I were in the erosion zone, we had to catch eggs. I caught twice, and Ruby caught twice.

We had a little panic moment as we had three turtles on a 20-meter-wide (66-foot-wide) stretch of beach. One turtle was heading directly toward us and another turtle nest where we were ready to catch eggs. You surely don’t want to be run over by a 300-kilogram (660-pound) leatherback turtle. So, we stood in her way. She was only 50 centimeters (20 inches) from me when she finally decided to move back to the sea. That was quite impressive. As we were told before, the leatherbacks don’t really see us, but they can see shadows. This one will probably come back tonight to lay eggs. We’ll see. We just had enough time to read her flipper tag while she was heading to the water. You’d be surprised at how quickly these big animals can move.

Monday, May 26, 2003

We had the night off, so we went to Buck Island (a national underwater refuge) in a catamaran sailboat. That was really exciting, and we did some snorkeling there. We spent part of the night on the beach since we are now in the leatherback rhythm of being out at night.

I discovered that the Cruzan (St. Croix) sun can be pretty dangerous. I forgot to put sunscreen lotion on my feet, and they are now totally burnt. I don’t know how I will wear my hiking shoes tomorrow night.

There is one thing I forgot to mention about walking at night. Even though my night vision has improved a lot, some things I still cannot detect are the turtle nests. Sometimes a turtle will dig an 80-centimeter (31.5-inch) deep nest and decide to move on. Quite a lot of time I end up in these nests. Fortunately, the sand is soft and we laugh a lot!

Sunday, May 25, 2003

We had a quiet night on the beach, and I saw only two turtles. That left plenty of time to look at the stars. I discovered Scorpio, Leo, Jupiter, and the Southern Cross. The rest of the time I was counting shooting stars. The record is now owned by Math, with 22 shooting stars in one night.

I have the impression that my night vision is improving and that I can see the turtles more easily now. More interesting is that, depending on the wind direction, I can smell the turtles before I can see them. Some can be pretty smelly.

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Today, I saw in this order: two dolphins, thousand of fish, 11 turtles, and four shooting stars. I think I am in paradise.

It is Saturday night, and it seems that it was also turtle party night on the beach. We started our patrol on the grassy side of the beach. This side is covered by sea grass that makes the walking so much easier. Then we went on to the erosion zone. Suddenly, three big black spots that we recognize easily as leatherback turtles are already there. My two teammates stay with the three turtles while I finish the patrol. I take the radio to make sure I can communicate with Jeanne if I find more turtles. Two minutes later, another one. Jeanne sends somebody to finish my patrol since I must check on this new turtle.

While Ruby finishes my patrol, she comes across another turtle. We hear on the radio that another one has joined the three previous ones. So now we have six turtles on the same part of the beach...that is really crazy and it will the same all night long. At 5 a.m. Sunday, we are still on the beach as our turtle from Puerto Rico (you can tell that from her tag) is totally confused and moving around the beach. Another one without any identification is still digging. It is really incredible for us to see a turtle in the daylight, and it seems that we are discovering the beach! The one turtle finally lays eggs, and we try to PIT tag her (insert a PIT) in her right shoulder. Strangely, she is not in a trance. Turtles are usually in a kind of trance when they lay eggs, which is why you can measure and check them without disturbing them. This one is obviously not in a trance as she reacts very strongly when the needle enters her flesh. Finally, she receives a simple flipper tag, is measured and checked, and then is set free.

I hope it will be quieter Sunday night as my legs are a bit stiff and tired. But whenever I see a turtle, I just forget that. I guess I'm in a kind of trance as well.

Friday, May 23, 2003

As usual, we arrive on the beach at 8 p.m. At 8.40 p.m., the first turtle is already there, and she is body pitting. That means she is throwing sand all over the place, and you need to stay at a good distance!

The first thing you want to do when you meet a turtle is to find out who she is. As she usually does not answer, you need to check her back flipper tag. The tag is a little metal piece with a number that is linked to a database, which contains all the information we already have about that turtle. The tag is usually on the right back flipper. If she does not have one, you check for her passive integrated tag (PIT). For that, you need to scan her shoulders. You must be careful doing that while she is digging since she is throwing sand on her carapace (shell). As I am not so experienced, I end up covered by sand. That won't be the last time, I bet.

A lot of turtles are usually not happy with the first nest that they dig, and they will move to different places before they lay. The turtle my group had this night tried four different nests before finally laying in her fifth nest. Good for me, as it is my turn to catch eggs since we are in the erosion zone.

Here's the best trick to catch turtle eggs: When the turtle stops digging and kind of covers the nest with her right flipper, that means she is ready to lay eggs. You need to be ready by lying on your stomach with the plastic bag open. You also must cave in the nest; otherwise, the eggs will be difficult to find if you drop them. Then you just lay your head on her peduncle (the end of her carapace that looks like a tail) and put your hand underneath her. Anytime she pushes, you know that eggs will come out—sometimes seven at the same time! The eggs come out with a lubricant, so it is very easy to drop them. This lubricant also makes your hands incredibly soft afterwards.

Once the turtle is finished, she will start tamping to cover the nest with sand. Be sure you have your hands out of the way as her flippers are really powerful. You then need to measure her length and width and check if she has scars or parts of her flippers missing. The latter is usually the case, and some turtles are badly injured with big pink scars. These may come from sharks attacks, boats, nets, etc.

After these exciting moments, I was happy to have a shower (sand gets everywhere) and sleep until 1:30 p.m on Saturday. This gives me a lot of time to enjoy the sun and the beach before the next night of work.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

This time, we spend the whole night on the beach. We have only one turtle. Since we're in an erosion zone, we need to catch the eggs in order to relocate them to a safer place. Before reburying them, we have to count all the eggs and check to see if they are yolkless. The first eggs laid by the turtle have a perfect tennis ball shape, and these are surely eggs with yolks. The last ones have all kinds of bizarre forms, with some as small as pearls.

Because we had only one turtle, we had a lot of time to look at the stars and sleep....

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

After a long, long trip (20 hours to St. Croix from Geneva, Switzerland), I was finally there! I did not see much the first night since I was so tired. I went straight to bed and slept for 12 hours!

The next morning, I visited an old sugar cane plantation with Joe Porter, an Alcoan working on the same project. The house was built in 1654 and is splendid. We had to walk with an umbrella as the sun is really hot and dangerous for my skin, which is used to the Swiss climate.

All of the Earthwatch people were finally there at 3 p.m., and we gathered for the first explanation about the project. Jeanne, our project leader, has been working three years on this project. Her advice for the rest of our stay was pretty simple—eat a lot, drink a lot and sleep a lot. Well, those are all things I can do quiet easily!

To slowly get used to the schedule we will have for the rest of the project, tonight we will be patrolling on the beach from 8 p.m. until midnight only. In fact, we will be just watching what the others are doing. There will be 20 of us on the beach since the number of turtles nesting there is important. In 1982, only 20 turtles were seen on the beach, and this year 170 have already been nesting. That’s why they need a lot of people to make sure all turtles are tagged and counted and all nests are located.

Nine p.m. and still no turtles on the beach for us. The same news is coming from all the patrols with which we are in contact via radio. Jeanne decides to dig out a nest where the hatching happened 24 hours ago. The goal is to help the resting hatchlings get out, count the yolkless eggs, and look at what stage of development the other eggs are in. No chance tonight since we could not find anything in that nest.

One meter (3.3 feet) away, we suddenly see a lot of little tracks—just like the tracks left by the big leatherbacks but in miniature. Jeanne starts to dig out. You can smell it...there must be something inside that one. Suddenly, Jeanne places one hatchling in the sand, then one more, three, four, five, six...we now have 16 mini-leatherbacks in the sand.

They are very small, approximately eight centimeters (three inches), and very warm and totally sleepy. After 10 minutes, they start moving around. They are very quick, with some heading straight to the nest! Each of us takes one or two turtles, which we carry close to the sea and make sure they go into the surf. We have to put some back 10 times because of the waves and the turtles going in the wrong direction.

Finally, they are all gone. But that was only the start. They will now need to escape from the night herons and fish that are waiting. As we stood on the beach, a cat came along. I was told they are also a problem as they eat many hatchlings. Good luck little leatherbacks!

Now we are told by radio that a turtle has been seen. The first question asked by Jeanne—“Do you know who she is?” It appears that some turtles are quite famous on the beach, especially the first one we meet. She comes every night, and every night she tries to dig a nest. She tries five, six times and then goes back to the sea. It appears that she has a problem with her right flipper, and she cannot dig properly. As predicted, she finally gives up and moves to another place.

We move to the next turtle, which is doing much better. The nest is already 80 centimeters (31 inches) deep, and Kendra is ready to catch the eggs since we are in an erosion zone. This means that the nest will need to be relocated. But again, the turtle suddenly moves her front flipper, a sign that she has decided to give up.

It’s already midnight, and we are heading back to the bungalows. We are all tired, not only because of the walking in the sand but because of all the intense emotions we just had. We need to make sure we don’t fall asleep in the truck since the road is so bad that we can be throw out very quickly.

All these magic moments I just had are in my head but also on my video camera. With patience, you may be able to see them when I get back...if I ever decide to go back.


Related Sites


Leatherback Turtles

Sea Turtle Research & Conservation
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Chelonian Research Foundation
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Marine Turtle Newsletter
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National Geographic Lesson Plan
A lesson plan for students in kindergarten through second grade that focuses on leatherback turtles and their special compasses.
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Protecting Leatherback Turtle Nesting in Costa Rica
Nesting is protected by law.
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U.S. Virgin Islands

U.S. Virgin Islands
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Virgin Islands National Park
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Earthwatch Institute


Learn more about this international nonprofit, which supports scientific field research worldwide.
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Leatherback Turtles


Explore the world of these endangered turtles.
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Quick Facts about Leatherback Turtles


Descriptions, status, threats, and accomplishments in conserving the leatherback turtles.
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2002 Expedition Diary


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