Injured sea turtle

Volunteers help a fatally injured green sea turtle onto the beach at Maho Bay earlier this month.

In the conservation world we often rely on ‘charismatic megafauna’ to carry our message. These are the gentle creatures that peak our human curiosity and capture our hearts, offering us the opportunity to feel closer to nature than we had before with just a glimpse into their eyes.

On St. John, our sea turtles carry the burden of being our charismatic megafauna and ambassadors for ocean conservation. We use their story of survival against the odds to evoke compassion among our members and followers, and raise funds for marine protection in V.I. National Park and Coral Reef National Monument.

Our most commonly-seen sea turtle, the green sea turtle, is endangered. This means that without significant change in recovery efforts, there is a high likelihood of this species becoming extinct in the near future. Recently, a 68-pound green sea turtle was hit by a boat in Maho Bay. The boat’s propeller severed the turtle’s shell. Though it did not kill the turtle instantly, the wound was to be fatal. Dozens of our Sea Turtle Program volunteers and other caring souls came to assist with the rescue, including veterinarian Dr. Karen. The sea turtle was brought to shore from its familiar home in the ocean to be humanely euthanized.

Although a sea turtle’s head popping up above the water’s surface may appear as common as a great pelican’s dive, it is an extraordinary sight from a global perspective. Maho Bay has a population of 20 to 30 juvenile and subadult green sea turtles, thanks to the moorings that protect the seabed from anchors, resulting in healthy sea grass beds for grazing.

These turtles are considered juvenile and subadult because they have not reached 25 or more years, the age of sexual maturity when females may reproduce. They come to the warm, calm bay to stay safe and eat sea grass.

Unfortunately, the sea turtle-to-human ratio at Maho Bay is not in balance. For all our love and admiration of these peaceful creatures, we can also be their greatest enemy. If we truly aim to protect them, we cannot continue to feed our curiosity with invasive personal encounters.

No one of us wants to believe that we are part of the problem. The truth is that we are all part of the problem — just as much as we can all be a part of the solution. Please, help spread these critical conservation messages to help protect the critically endangered hawksbill and green sea turtles that shelter in our bays:

Boaters: Slow down for those below! Operating a vessel at high speeds through mooring fields and near coastal zones increases the likelihood of a dangerous collision with both humans and marine life. Always scan the surface for life and be prepared to stop. Speeds in mooring areas should be at the minimum to allow steerage and should not create a wake.

Snorkelers: Stay back! Maintain a distance of six to 10 feet from a sea turtle. Never touch, chase, or prevent a sea turtle from surfacing to breathe.

Beachgoers: Pack it in, pack it out! Leave no trace.

In the coming months, we will be recruiting volunteers to help us have more turtle talks on North Shore beaches and at the NPS Visitor Center. If you are interested in volunteering as a beach docent, please contact us for more information.

— Tonia Lovejoy, St. John, is acting director of Friends of Virgin Islands National Park.