Meet the real jet-set of Jumby Bay

The exclusive private isle where endangered sea turtles reign supreme

turtles 10 Kathryn Levasseur

Paying a visit to Jumby Bay’s most revered residents is not without its restrictions. The private island’s reclusive community have several requirements. Picture ID must be carried at all times, no person will be admitted without prior approval, noise must be limited to a loud whisper, and there should be absolutely no flash photography. Reprobates will be immediately and unceremoniously escorted back to the mainland. Jumby Bay’s distinguished inhabitants may lay claim to one of the most exclusive addresses in the region but that shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to dress to the nines either. Recommended attire for a rendezvous includes sensible shoes and a raincoat.

The reasons for such stringency are fairly simple. The island’s treasured hawksbill turtles – listed as critically endangered since 1996 – are the subject of the world’s longest-running hawksbill research and protection programme. And they’ve called this place home far longer than their human counterparts.Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the project which is entirely funded by Jumby Bay’s homeowners. The last three decades have seen almost 450 sea turtles tagged for monitoring and the number of those nesting on Pasture Beach increase three-fold.

Dr Seth Stapleton, from the University of Minnesota, is the man tasked with overseeing the study’s critical work. “Hawksbills’ primary threat was harvest for their shells,” he explained. “The beautifully coloured tortoiseshell was used to make products such as jewellery and sunglasses. Although the trade is now banned and turtles are protected under various regulations and agreements, the historical harvest was so large that their numbers are now a tiny fraction of what they were a couple of hundred years ago.” The project first came about when turtle expert Dr Jim Richardson was invited to Jumby Bay in 1986 by prominent Antiguan lawyer John Fuller to investigate a potential hawksbill nesting beach. The creatures had always been perceived as too skittish to study but the results of that first trip proved promising and the research continued.

The meticulous work involves hourly beach patrols every night for the duration of the five and a half month annual nesting season. Females laying their eggs are identified and steps taken where necessary to ensure the precious yield is safe. “In 2014 we had a record year with nearly 90 turtles nesting there. When the project started there were about 30,” Dr Stapleton said. “It’s fantastic to think that we see every single turtle nesting on Pasture Beach. This really sets this project apart. “What’s even more remarkable is that we’re continuing to see some of the same turtles that were first tagged in the late 1980s returning to nest here. They were originally tagged when they were around 15 to 20 years old and a few are still reproducing decades later.”

0I6A3559The unique scheme has seen more data collected about the elusive creatures than anywhere else on the planet. “Jumby Bay has been instrumental in providing much ecological information. Many details we now take for granted we learned there – for example, that hawksbills don’t nest every year; they nest four or five times in one year, laying around 150 eggs each time and then skip a year or two,” Dr Stapleton continued. “But there’s still so much we don’t know, such as how long they live. My ballpark guess would be 50 to 60.”

Because turtles are tagged when in their so-called ‘nesting trance’, most of the data collated is about adult females. Researchers are now taking genetic tissue from the hatchlings to compile information about the males too. For Dr Stapleton, who has been involved with the project since 2004, the work extends beyond a scientific endeavour and into a clear passion. “I find sea turtles fascinating when you consider that they’ve been around for millions of years,” he said. “And how they conduct their lives is interesting too; they spend just a fraction of it on land. They go into the water as a hatchling and then are not seen again until they’re about the size of a dinner plate.”

Like all animals, turtles play an important ecological role. “Hawksbills are a keystone species,” he continued. “They primarily eat sponges which helps keep sponges in check and contributes to the overall health of coral reefs.” Dr Stapleton’s plans for the upcoming months include deploying, for the first time in more than a decade, three satellite transmitters to track hawksbills’ movements. “We’ve had the locations of a few turtles reported to us by fishermen who notice the tags and call them in but this will enable us to better assess where they travel after nesting. We’re also very excited about a genetics programme led by a graduate student at the University of South Carolina,” he said. “That work is assessing the relatedness of hawksbills nesting on Jumby Bay and in Antigua, including incidences of mother-daughter pairs. This will help us to better understand how long it takes Caribbean hawksbills to reach maturity.”

Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of Jumby Bay’s big-hearted homeowners. “To my knowledge, there is no other project like this that’s completely funded and supported by residents,” Dr Stapleton concurred. “The hawksbill programme is a significant part of the island’s community and we are incredibly grateful for that.”

turtles 4 Kathryn LevasseurOne of the biggest challenges facing the species’ continuation is the limited number of hatchlings which survive the omnipresent predators. With just one in 1,000 making it to adulthood, the odds are stacked firmly against them. Exacerbating matters further is hawksbills’ late maturation; they don’t usually begin to reproduce until they’re at least 15 years old. For Ashton Williams, a board member of Antigua’s Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) which hosts occasional turtle watching nights at Jumby Bay, that’s even more reason to step up efforts to protect them. Sadly, he said, a small number of turtles are still killed for their meat on the mainland.

“We were following turtle tracks recently at Rendezvous Bay when the marks suddenly stopped. We could see where a turtle had been flipped over and dragged away. Thankfully the younger generation aren’t that interested in turtle meat but some of the older folk still have a taste for it. There’s also a myth that the eggs are an aphrodisiac,” Mr Williams explained. “I tell people the eggs are not a magic potion; the only thing they will give you is very high cholesterol.”

Like Dr Stapleton, Mr Williams’ affection for the animals is tangible. He has been working with the country’s marine life for the last 35 years. “I love turtles’ gracefulness and their ability to navigate such vast distances. But what I love most about them is their determination. The female leaves her environment and puts herself in so much danger all for the survival of her offspring,” he said. “When she goes into her nesting trance she’s totally vulnerable to predators. To go through all that just to be killed by a man, it really hurts."

Happily for Jumby Bay’s reptilian population, the protected haven today has the proud status of one of the world’s densest hawksbill nesting sites with one every two to three metres. Guided by the light of the moon, thousands of tiny hatchlings scurry their way into the ocean each season. Once there, it’s over to the mercy of Mother Nature. Only she knows what fate awaits them then. 

Visit www.jbhp.org for more information about the Jumby Bay Hawksbill Project, including how you can help support its work.

by Gemma Handy