There are 3 different kinds of Sea Turtles on St. John or the Virgin Islands in general: Leatherback, Green Turtle and Hawksbill.
Sea Turtles on St. John
You usually see Green Turtles in those places with sea grass beds (like Maho and Francis) and Hawksbill around reefs (e.g. Scott and Turtle Bay). The Leatherback turtles are the largest species of sea turtle, weighing on average 600-800 pounds but are unfortunately almost extinct and can rarely be seen.
Sea Turtles – Endangered Species
Please respect nature and do not touch them! It’s illegal to harm, touch, or harass a Sea Turtle. You can be fined up to $10,000 and put in jail if you harm a sea turtle! All 3 kinds of Sea Turtles listed above are federally endangered species. Development of beaches has taken their nesting places away an too much fishing and the exploitation of hawksbills for tortoise shell products like combs, hair clips, eyeglasses etc. have taken their toll on a once thriving population.
Do not buy products made of tortoise shell! For more information on efforts to preserve them, head over to Wimarcs.org. Please consider making a donation to support their work!
Where to find Sea Turtles on St. John
Chances are, you can find Sea Turtles pretty much everywhere you go. However, there are some spots where there seems to be a guarantee to see them: Scott Beach and, you name it, Turtle Bay, both part of the Caneel Bay Resort. Access is limited to arrival by sea (so you can rent a paddleboard or dinghy to get there). The Resort asks that you respect the privacy of guests and do not use resort beach chairs, towels and facilities. For a Caneel Bay map click here. You can swim from Scott Bay to Turtle Bay, but it can be hard with current and waves crashing against the rocks, so take care! You are also very likely to see sea turtles at Hawksnest, Maho (over the grassy area), Francis, Waterlemon Cay or Salt Pond (between the boat moorings). Another lesser known beach that has at least 3 turtles is Chocolate Hole. You will find the sea turtles in the middle of the bay over the sea grass bed.
How to spot sea turtles on St. John
Sometimes it can be hard to see sea turtles when you are in the water swimming yourself. If you are on a snorkeling trip from a boat, have the captain stand on deck and help you spot them. Or, if you see a stand up paddleboarder for example at Maho or Francis, have him help you spot the sea turtles, they have a better view from their elevated stance.
How do Sea Turtles breathe?
Sea turtles are air breathers, just like us, they hold their breath, dive down and then come back up again to get air. When you are at the surface, e.g. paddleboarding or swimming a bit of the shore, chances are that a Sea Turtle will randomly pop up right in front of you, look at you and then quickly dive down again. While these brief encounters can be fun, it is much better to see them underwater with fins and mask. Try to swim quietly, no splashing of fins, and breathe slowly. Try to find places with “turtle grass” (which looks like lettuce). Swim/paddle out on the ends (near the rocks) of any beach and then back to the middle. I have seen most sea turtles about 100-400 yards from shore in a depth of about 15 feet, kind of where the swimming areas usually end. It was mostly either early in the morning or the afternoon, supposedly because the beaches are getting quieter then.
Random Sea Turtle Facts
- Sea Turtles are air breathers just like us. if they are caught in fishing line or in a net, they will drown. Please pick up any stray fishing line, gear or other trash you find in the water or on the beach, it may just save a turtle’s life!
- Sea Turtles don’t have ears but they can hear!
- Incubation of eggs takes 8 weeks. If you are a baby turtle, the odds of survival aren’t good! Only 1 in 1,000 sea turtles survives from hatching to adulthood! Birds, crabs, dogs, mongoose, and fish eat hatchlings. So, when one adult turtle dies, its like having thousands and thousands of hatchlings die. When baby sea turtles getting ready to emerge from their nest, they will gather just below the sand surface and wait for night fall. If you were to drive or walk on the beach before they come out of the nest, you can crush and kill them. Also rubbish and other stuff laying on the beach can block their way.
- Leatherback sea turtles eat jellyfish. They can easily mistake a plastic bag for a jellyfish. If they swallow it, they can suffocate, or starve to death!
No luck seeing them?
Watch a Sea Turtles on St. John Video, taken at Francis Bay instead. Amazing, no?