In Nevis, a Sanctuary for Sea Turtles

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - July 26, 2011

Above: Lemuel Pemberton’s Nevis Turtle Group has monitored more than 150 sea turtles since 2003. (Photo: Nevis Turtle Group)

By Alexander Britell

NEVIS– They may arrive at midnight, or not at all. But when Nevis’ most unpredictable visitors show up at Lover’s Beach on Friday nights, they have a most hospitable welcome.

The intermittent red lights along the shore tend to come from the flashlight of Lemuel Pemberton, who has been watching, researching, tagging and following the sea turtles who nest on Nevis’ shores since 2001.

What began as Pemberton’s one-man initiative to research Nevis’ turtles and protect them from the Caribbean-wide scourge of poachers, has grown into the Nevis Turtle Group, a non-profit organization that works with local schools and the nearby Four Seasons Resort to protect the turtles and study their unusual movements.

“One of the things that has puzzled scientists is how it is that a sea turtle can find its way back to its natal beach,” said Pemberton, who is also the Director of Fisheries in the Nevis Island Administration. “It seems to be a complex animal — they are solitary animals. I never find turtles in a group — that may be the reason why they disappear for very long periods.”

After a two-year turtle conservation study in Barbados in 1999, Pemberton decided to investigate Nevis’ own, previously undocumented population. He began following about 15 beaches on the island, monitoring twice a day to see where it was that Nevisian turtles came to nest.

His research showed Lover’s Beach as the focal point of turtle nesting pattern, and in 2003, he began a nighttime monitoring programme there that has grown from just two people to a regular contingent of nearly 50 enthusiasts.

It was 2005 when a group of turtles washed up on beach of the nearby Four Seasons Resort and actually swam in the hotel’s pool, where they were rescued by members of the hotel’s staff. Needing an expert, several staff members suggested Pemberton. The hotel soon after started and funded a programme, together with the International Sea Turtle Conservancy, that performs satellite monitoring of the turtles’ movements for Pemberton’s group. It’s all conducted in partnership with the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy.

The hotel also expanded an awareness programme, and began holding a summer Sea Turtle Camp for Nevisian youths — with the latter project becoming so popular that the hotel now offers all guests the opportunity to join in on the turtle watches, in addition to following the movements of tagged Nevisian turtles online.

“That has helped a lot,” he said. “The hotel has even has a programme for its workers where they educate them about what to do if they see a turtle hatching or coming out of its nest — so they know who to call.”

On Friday nights, Pemberton is now accompanied by what he calls the Junior Conservationists, a group of Nevisian schoolchildren driven by a similar interest in the creatures, of which Pemberton has tagged more than 150 since 2003.

Pemberton took Caribbean Journal on a turtle watch on Lover’s Beach, just past the Nevis Airport, to watch a Hawksbill turtle lay anywhere from 100-150 eggs, carefully cover the subsurface pit in which she laid them, and, ignoring the assembled crowd, sprint (as much as a Turtle can, of course) back to the sea, where she quickly disappeared.

Many of the turtles who have nested on the beach have been named, some in local contests, and others by Pemberton. The most recent, Ginger, who was named by a Nevisian student from Gingerland Parish, actually returned to the beach, a rarity.

Just around 20 percent of the turtles he’s tagged actually return to their natal beaches, he said, with Hawskbills returning once every three to four years, and Green and Leatherbacks making the return trip once every two years.

Pemberton said he was looking to grow the group, with a vision to expand to as many as 400 people regularly going on watches.

This article is part of Caribbean Journal’s Country in Focus series featuring Nevis. See here for our video on Nevis’ growing green movement.

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