After hopping across three islands, one ferry and one tiny airplane ride later I made it to the island of St. Croix. Though still part of the US Virgin Island, St. Croix lies some 40 miles south of the cluster of Virgin Islands split between the US and Britain. Compared to the sparse population on St. John, St. Croix is a relatively industrial center for the USVI, though it is still home to both cultural and natural resource sites. Unfortunately my time on St. Croix would be very short, so I had to make sure I made the most of it.
We hit the ground running. Clayton Pollock, the Park Diving Officer for the Buck Island Reef National Monument, picked me up from the airport the night I arrived and briefed me on the schedule for the next few days. It seems I could actually be useful during my time at BUIS. The marine park on St. Croix is home to a variety of ambitious project, one of which is a large-scale marine tracking program.
As a joint project between the Park Service, the University of the Virgin Island, the USGS, SFCN, NOAA, the USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources Division of Fish and Wild Life, TNC, UMass Amherst and UMiami, 145 of acoustic receivers have been deployed at depth around Buck Island and offshore of St. Croix According to Clayton Pollock, the project goal is “to better understand animal movements within marine ecosystems and sustain the efficacy and connectivity between MPAs.” These collaborators are interested in tracking different organisms, such as sharks, turtles, fish, conch and lobsters. If a tagged organism happens to swim past one of the acoustic receivers, the tag is pinged and the signature is recorded on the receiver. Every once and a while the receivers are brought back up to the surface where the information can be downloaded and parceled out to the different private investigators.
However, these receivers need to be serviced every once in a while, and as luck would have it 21 of the needed to be serviced ASAP. Because I happen to be on island at the time, I volunteered to join the UVI crew tasked with retrieving the receivers, so Clayton could continue the arduous task of prepping for the 2015 turtle-monitoring season. Much like on St. John the weather forecast for St. Croix didn’t look too pleasant, but we had a big job to do.
The receivers were moored over reefs at depths ranging from 10ft to 70ft, so it took quite a lot of energy to execute the dives. We would deploy two divers with a float, accounting for the ripping currents, unhook the receivers from their moorings, ascend to the surface, load our gear onto the boat, and motor to the next site to do it all over again. Couple that with 25knot winds and 4-6ft seas and we were in for quite a day. Even though it took all day, we managed to retrieve all 21 of the receivers.
The next day Clayton and I headed out to Buck Island, which is only about a 15min boat ride from St. Croix, to deploy 3 of the receivers. They were all in relatively shallow water, and thankfully we could take a more relaxed pace. The waters around Buck Island were much more sheltered, and I was absolutely blown away by the natural resources surrounding BUIS. Diving around St. John was spectacular, but the cerulean waters and colorful fringing reef around Buck Island is a site to behold. Especially when you surface just off shore from picturesque white sand beaches.
The Park Service has gone to great lengths to protect the cultural and natural resources on St. Croix and Buck Island, and I was absolutely blown away by both. After a quick orientation dive around BUIS, we headed back to Christiansted, the historic district on St. Croix where the Park’s HQ are located. The Park’s offices are housed in a historic building built by Danish colonists, and are right across the street from an old Danish Fort. As we prepared for turtle season, I marveled at the classic colonial Caribbean buildings, which looked like something right out of a movie set.
However, I didn’t have much time to wander about. The crux of the field season for BUIS is the Buck Island Sea Turtle Research Program. Every night from mid July through October since 1987 biotechs will wander the beaches of Buck Island, monitoring and documenting the sea turtles that come to dig their nests and lay their eggs. Hawksbills, greens and loggerheads are among the types of turtles that call the Caribbean home, and for generations female turtles haul themselves up onto the idyllic beaches under the cover of darkness to start an ancient cycle over again. Turtles that have tags on them are recorded, and tissue samples are taken as well. New females are tagged and logged; hopefully they’ll return year after year. Because female turtles return to the same beaches every time they lay, a lot of good data can be taken.
Ever year 4 new seasonal biotechs are brought on to monitoring the beaches, and as luck would have it I happened to be on island for the first two nights of training. Lucky for me both because I got to see what training looks like, and because we only were doing half-nights, not a full 12hr night. After meeting up with the new seasonals, Clayton, Tessa (a previous seasonal turned fulltime biotech), Alex (a volunteer and previous seasonal) and I all headed out to Buck Island. As the sun dipped behind the horizon we discussed the protocols and divvied up the gear.
Buck Island is little more than a hill sticking up out of the water. However, over the course of the season over 100 turtles will lay their eggs in nests along the 2km of beach. Divided into a Southern and Northern patrol, the biotechs will take shifts slowly walking the beaches by themselves looking for turtles. During training however, we went in groups and took a leisurely pace. Even though Buck Island is open to visitors (only during the day during turtle season) most of the “paths” the biotechs follow needed to be cleared.
Even though we didn’t see any turtles over the 2 nights we spent on BUIS, it was still a really neat experience. Not many people get the opportunity to stroll the beaches of BUIS, which sounds a lot easier than it really is. Even though the temperature hovers in the low 80s at night, biotechs were pants in order to protect them from thorny or poisonous pants. And closed toed, waterproof shoes. We had to bushwhack through dense underbrush, through the lapping waves and over wide swaths of sandy beaches. Again, this sounds like a walk in the park, but each patrol takes an hour, and typically one does 8 or so patrols a night. It takes a lot of work, and that’s without finding any turtles.
Even though I was kept very busy at BUIS, my time was unfortunately short. After an exhausting couple of days, it’s time to head back to Biscayne National Park for one more week of south Florida diving. I’d like to thank Clayton Pollock, Tessa Code, Alex Gulick, and the 2015 BISTRP crew. Good luck turtle lurking!
Thanks for reading!