Coral World also serves as a rehabilitation center for injured or sick turtles and even struggling hatchlings that have not found their way out to sea and the safety of mats of Sargassum seaweed.
In one instance we helped a sea turtle that had been collected illegally for a pet. The owners voluntarily brought the turtle to Coral World when they could no longer care for it. Our marine operations staff trained the young hawksbill to forage for natural adult foods such as sponges and zoanthid anemones. We then released the tagged turtle back to the wild.
Other young turtles have been found with injuries that prevented them from feeding normally. With assistance from a local veterinarian, Coral World has nursed the animals back to health and released them to appropriate habitats. Each year, we help dozens of hatchlings reach a safer environment. When tiny hatchling turtles are washed ashore, people often bring them to Coral World where we assure they are in good health before reintroducing them to the wild. Our staff will monitor their health for up to 90 days before releasing them. We transport hatchlings offshore by boat and place them in floating mats of Sargassum seaweed.
The Division of Fish and Wildlife of our Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources brought us a large turtle with a badly mangled front flipper, likely the result of a nasty encounter with a boat propeller. The vet determined that amputation of the flipper was necessary. Since this was a female of reproductive or close to reproductive age, saving her life was especially important. Our staff worked hard to save the life of the turtle and nurse her back to health. After several months of administering antibiotics and TLC, we successfully released the turtle to the wild in collaboration with the Division of Fish and Wildlife. With her hind flippers intact, this turtle should be able to mate, lay her eggs on the beach, and protect them by using her hind flippers to cover them with sand.
Through our daily Turtle Talks and our Turtle Encounter Program, we educate our guests about the biology of turtles and the many threats to their existence. There is good evidence that hatchling turtles spend their “lost years” drifting with sargassum and other sea weeds. The lost years is a term commonly used to refer to the years between a turtle’s hatching and its return to coastal waters as a juvenile. Although there have been sightings of hatchling-sized turtles adrift in sargassum and other sea grasses, no one has yet discovered where the majority of newly hatched turtles spend their childhood. We don’t even know for sure how long this period lasts, although estimates range from three to seven years.
Unfortunately, drifting garbage collects in the same places as the seaweed does. Garbage thrown into the ocean or allowed to find its way there through neglect is a serious threat to marine turtles. Young turtles inevitably attempt to eat some of this material, with devastating consequences. Plastic resembles food closely enough to fool even a mature turtle. Ingested plastic is toxic, obstructs the stomach and prevents the turtle from receiving nutrition from real food. This can often lead to a lingering death.
Artificial lighting from buildings, streetlights, and beachfront properties has a disorienting effect on hatchlings who find their way to the sea by the light reflected off the ocean. Even adult turtles can mistakenly move inland after egg laying, and females tend to avoid areas where beachfront lighting is most intense. Turtles also abort nesting attempts more often in lighted areas. So artificial lighting has had profound negative effects on nesting behavior and success. Coral World has worked with local hotels to ensure that their beachfront lighting is designed to avoid disorienting local sea turtles.
Unfortunately for sea turtles in many areas of the world including the West Indies, their eggs and their meat are still highly prized. Even though possession of sea turtles or sea turtle parts without a permit is illegal in the U.S., including the Virgin Islands, it is not illegal in the neighboring British Virgin Islands and some Virgin Islanders, both U.S. and British, still like to eat turtle meat. So poaching is still a problem. Not too long ago, Coral World was involved in the rescue of three very large sea turtles captured by poachers in the dark of night and offered testimony in the prosecution of one of the poachers. We were grateful the turtles were still alive when the authorities caught the poachers. We held the turtles until they were no longer needed as evidence and then released them into Water Bay.
Turtles throughout the world are also endangered by the continuing loss of nesting habitat. Research suggests that marine turtles have an extremely high affinity for their nesting beaches so the loss or reduction of even a single nesting beach can have serious effects. The most serious threat is caused by increased human presence on beaches, especially at night, which causes nesting females to try to shift their nesting sites, sometimes to less suitable beaches. Egg laying can be aborted or delayed as well.
Recreational use discourages nesting activity on beaches that have been used for millennia. The introduction of recreational equipment such as lounge chairs, umbrellas, small boats, and beach cycles, to name a few, can further reduce the usefulness of a beach for nesting, and can seriously damage or destroy any existing nests. Coral World has made an effort to educate vendors on and visitors to nearby Coki Beach about the importance of watching for nesting activity. When informed of nesting activity on Coki Beach, we have relocated nests to safer locations and assisted hatchlings to make their way to the sea.
Coral World staff members have assisted the Division of Fish and Wildlife with its turtle census and collaborated with other organizations like the West Indian Marine Animal Research and Conservation Service and the STAR Network.