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U.S.V.I. Animal Fact Sheet #25
Turtles and boats
All sea turtles are reptiles. They spend almost their
entire lives swimming in the ocean. The only time
they are not in the ocean is when the eggs are
developing in the sand on the beach (they leave land
after hatching) and when the females return to shore
to lay eggs. All sea turtles breathe air and need to
come to land to lay eggs. They are cold blooded like
all other reptiles, which is why they are found in
warm ocean waters. All the hard-shelled turtles have a
body temperature that is the same as the water in
which they live. The leatherback is the only soft-
shelled sea turtle and is the only turtle that is found in
colder waters. Because its body is so big and because
it has special counter current heat exchangers in its
flippers, it can maintain a body temperature higher
than the surrounding water.
Four species of sea turtles are found in the
U.S.V.I., the hawksbill, green, loggerhead and
leatherback. Hawksbills are the smallest; they have a
hawk-like beak, and their shell is elongated and
slightly tear dropped in shape. The green turtle's shell
is rounder and the shape of its nose is much blunter.
Loggerheads are uncommon in the Territory, but
several have recently been seen. They are reddish in
color and have a much thicker neck and head than the
hawksbill and green turtles. The loggerhead eats a
wide range of food items primarily molluscs,
crustaceans and fish. However, other marine animals
and plants have also been found in the guts of
stranded loggerhead turtles.
Hawksbills are generally found near reefs where
they eat primarily sponges. Sponges are a difficult
meal. They are often filled with silicious spicules
(literally spines made of glass) and contain toxins.
Green turtles have an herbivorous diet comprised
of seagrasses and algae. They are usually found near
productive seas grass beds or algal meadows.
Leatherbacks are the largest of the turtles and are
unique in that they have seven ridges that extend the
length of their body. The "shell" is not hard like the
other turtles but is made up of a thick fatty fibrous
tissue. Most evidence indicates that leatherback
turtles feed almost exclusively on gelatinous
organisms (especially jellyfish). The specialized
structures in their mouths and throats appear to help
leatherbacks capture/retain soft-bodied prey.
Leatherbacks are very infrequently seen, except when
they approach the shore to nest.
A disturbing trend is beginning at the largest
leatherback nesting beach in the USA, which is
located at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, St.
Croix. There has been an increase in boat traffic close
to shore during the 6 to 7 day period surrounding the
full moon phase during the summer nesting season.
During the 2005 nesting season surveys at Sandy
Point, 15 leatherbacks had injuries attributed to boat
propeller damage. Eight were fresh wounds, which
may have occurred as the turtles were coming to shore
to nest at Sandy Point. These injuries coincided with
nights that near shore boat traffic was documented.
A number of green turtles have also been struck
by boats and died in and around Christiansted Harbor.
These turtles were struck in areas that swimmers
frequent. Boaters need to be aware of their immediate
surroundings and take measures to avoid running into
swimming people or turtles.
Remember that boats may only be operated at
speed within operational areas (Title 25(15:297),
VIRR). These are areas outside the USVI safety
zones. Safety zones are defined as areas shoreward of
the following boundaries:
* St. Thomas and St. John: an area seaward 200 feet
of any fringing reef, but in no case less than 500
feet from the shoreline (including offshore cays
* St. Croix: an area seaward 200 feet of any fringing
reef, but in no case less than 400 feet from the
shoreline (including offshore cays and islands).
The safety zones also include an area 500 feet from
any designated non-motorized recreational
watersports activity area, such as designated
swimming, snorkeling, diving, surfing and
sailboarding (windsurfing) areas.
If you are boating within these safety zones,
increase your vigilance to avoid swimmers, sea
turtles, manatees, sea grasses and corals. You must
reduce your speed to reduce your wake.
Many bays and harbors in the USVI are
designated Restricted Areas, Prohibited Areas, and
Closed Areas (Please call the local Division of
Environmental Enforcement STT 340-774-3320,
STX 340-773-5774, or refer to the "Handbook of
Virgin Islands Boating Laws and Responsibilities" for
In Restricted Areas, operation of motorized
watercraft entering or leaving a restricted area shall be
in as straight a line as practicable and without
excessive wake and at a reduced speed.
Prohibited Areas are designated as non-
motorized (except for fishing and diving activities)
recreational watersports activity areas when surfing or
windsurfing activities are being conducted. No
motorized vessels (except fishing and diving vessels)
may enter the area while these watersports are being
Closed Areas are those in which all motorized
vessels are prohibited. These are also areas of high
The National Marine Fisheries Service has
designated the waters surrounding Sandy Point
National Wildlife Refuge as Critical Habitat for the
Territory's Sea Turtles. It is very important that
boaters reduce their speed in this area because prior to
emerging from the water, the female turtle will come
within 30 to 100 feet of the beach and "poke" her
head up to see the beach profile. Once she has found
the right "spot", she will approach the beach to
emerge from the water to begin her nesting activity.
During this time the turtles remain near the surface
and are very susceptible to injury from speeding
What you can do to help
1. Follow the safe boating guidelines described in
this brochure and the Handbook of VI Boating
2. During the leatherback nesting season (generally
April though August) reduce your speed,
especially at night while you are traveling though
the designated critical habitat, or close to any
3. During the nesting seasons, for green and
hawksbill turtles, fall/winter, reduce your speed
and move away from the coast line to prevent
hitting nesting turtles.
4. If you see someone harassing a sea turtle or
poaching a nest, call the local police (911) or the
local Division of Environmental Enforcement STT
340-774-3320, STX 340-773-5774.
5. For more information on sea turtles in the Virgin
Islands please visit our web site at:
PRODUCED IN 2005 by W. Coles
THIS PUBLICATION WAS PRODUCED WITH FUNDS
FROM THE NATIONAL FISH AND WILDLIFE
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON
OUR NATIVE ANIMALS CONTACT
DIVISION OF FISH AND WILDLIFE
6291 ESTATE NAZARETH, 101,
ST. THOMAS, VI 00802
PHONE 340-775-6762 FAX 340-775-3972
45 MARS HILL, ST. CROIX, VI 00840
PHONE 340-772-1955 FAX 340-772-3227