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Leatherback Turtle Checks in to Virgin Islands Resort

Guests at the Island Beachcomber Hotel on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin islands received an unexpected visitor from the ocean last night. A giant leatherback turtle came ashore to deposit her eggs at the feet of guests, a rare but welcome surprise that delighted all who experienced it. Photo courtesy Doug Norwood “It thrilled our...

Guests at the Island Beachcomber Hotel on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin islands received an unexpected visitor from the ocean last night. A giant leatherback turtle came ashore to deposit her eggs at the feet of guests, a rare but welcome surprise that delighted all who experienced it.

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Photo courtesy Doug Norwood

“It thrilled our guests,” said hotel general manager Rebekah Saville in a telephone interview today. “Our staff who have been here for as long as 30 years say they have never seen anything like this before.”

The leatherback was one of three turtles known to have come ashore to lay eggs on St. Thomas in recent weeks. The turtle that came on to the Lindberg Beach in front of the Beachcomber went as far as a line of beach chairs before digging a hole to bury her eggs in the sand.

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Photo courtesy Doug Norwood

Hotel staff cordoned off the area and the nest has been placed under 24-hour security guard.

“We thought she was going to go to the bar for a beer,” quipped Doug Norwood, a hotel guest from North Carolina, who made the photographs on this page. “But all she did was cover her nest and go back out to sea.”

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Leatherbacks are the largest living sea turtles, growing up to seven feet (two meters) long and exceeding 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms). Their evolutionary roots have been traced back more than 100 million years.

They are designated as endangered worldwide under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The main threats to them are loss of habitat (including fewer suitable beaches for nesting), entanglement in fishing lines, and ingestion of plastic bags they mistake for jellyfish, their preferred food.

“We called experts from Coral World and several government departments to alert them to this,” Saville said.

“It’s a miracle that this has happened now, right before dredging of St Thomas harbor is about to start to accommodate new cruise ships. The sand from the dredging is supposed to be dumped in our bay, which threatens our marine life. Now we hope that the presence of the turtle eggs will stop those plans,” she said.

The leatherback may have been passing St. Thomas when she felt the urge for one final round of egg-laying, said Coral World Ocean Park assistant curator Erica Palmer. “This is the end of the leatherback nesting season and she could have laid her first eggs somewhere else before heading back to her feeding grounds, when she felt the urge to lay her last eggs,” Palmer explained.

St. Thomas had seen a increase in leatherback nesting in recent years, Palmer added, most likely because the turtles’ numbers were increasing in the Atlantic Ocean. “There have been a lot of studies of these guys on St. Croix, which is a very popular nesting site for them. As the population grows they are starting to nest in different locations.”

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Photo courtesy Doug Norwood

Palmer said the rise in leatherback nesting on St. Thomas, a popular Caribbean tourism destination visited daily by cruise ships, started being properly studied by conservationists and government agencies only recently. “We are trying to get a general sense of what beaches they are using so we can make special efforts to protect them,” she said.

The eggs left in front of the Beachcomber Hotel last night will be carefully guarded, Palmer said. “As we approach the time for hatching–about 60 to 75 days after the eggs were deposited–volunteers will be posted to sit by the nest through the night to make sure that the hatchlings make their journey to the ocean safely.

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Photo courtesy Doug Norwood

“The contents of the nest will be examined to make sure no stragglers are left behind. The egg shells will be studied to look for undeveloped eggs and deformed hatchlings, count the number of eggs hatched, and make an overall assessment of the health of the turtles,” Palmer said.

Coral World is currently researching turtle populations and the effects of lighting on turtles.

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