FREDERIKSTED, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands — Sandy Point is one of the prettiest beaches in the Caribbean.
It is also home to endangered sea turtles that come ashore from March to June to lay eggs in the powdery white sand on the island’s southwest corner. In fact, the refuge has been called a maternity ward for sea turtles.
It was a recent stop on a 12-mile bicycle tour of western St. Croix, a tropical American territory with Danish roots and hundreds of historic old sugar cane plantations.
The Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge is the principal nesting beach for leatherback turtles in the northern Caribbean. It is also one of the most-studied turtle populations in the world.
The refuge also gets hawksbill turtles, another endangered species, plus the green turtle, a threatened species. Loggerhead turtles are sometime visitors.
The preserve, established in 1984, covers 383 acres. It offers two miles of continuous sand (the longest beach in the Virgin Islands), deep water access and no nearby offshore reefs. It is ideal for sea turtles.
The refuge is closed during peak turtle-breeding season from late April to August. It is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends and on cruise ship-docking days the rest of the year. It gets about 11,000 visitors a year.
Typically, between 18 and 55 female turtles will come ashore at Sandy Point to lay eggs in a given year.
Since 1981, 342 leatherback turtles have been tagged with microchips by refuge staffers and partnering conservation groups and volunteers. That includes AAG322, who was tagged in 1981 and is still a regular visitor. The female turtles return every two to three years from the North Atlantic to the beach where they were hatched to lay eggs.
The leatherback is the largest sea turtle, 4 to 8 feet long and weighing 500 to 2,000 pounds. It is also the deepest diving, most migratory and widest-ranging sea turtle on the globe.
Each female can produce 8 to 11 clutches of eggs per season. Each clutch contains 50 to 80 eggs that are the size of billiard balls. The eggs are buried in sand and will hatch in about 60 days. The hatchlings are 2½ inches long.
Adult males never leave the water and wait offshore near nesting sites to copulate randomly with females.
In 2009, a record year, 202 females produced more than 1,100 nests in the refuge with at least 37,000 hatchling turtles. That is a big jump from the early 1980s when perhaps 2,000 hatchlings emerged at Sandy Point.
The biggest threats have been poaching and sand erosion that exposes the unhatched eggs.
Today the beach is protected, and nests threatened by erosion are relocated by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overnight beach patrol from April through mid-July. About one-third of turtle nests get relocated.
Typically, each nest will produce 60 to 70 hatchlings, after 60 days in the sand. They instinctively leave the nest at night and head for the lightest horizon to find the water line, and then swim in a frenzy to the open sea. They can become disoriented by bright lights ashore.
The refuge volunteers do what they can to assist the hatchlings getting to the ocean. There are also nocturnal turtle watches that are open to the public.
The Sandy Point beach has even had its Hollywood moment. In the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” Red (Morgan Freeman) walks along a Mexican beach. The scene was actually shot at Sandy Point. Much of the film, which also starred Tim Robbins, was shot in and around Mansfield, Ohio.
Other stops along the way
Another stop on the bike tour, run by Freedom City Cycles, was the ruins of Estate Butler Bay, a sugar cane plantation, on the island’s northwest coast. It’s not far from pretty beaches and had a tree filled with iguanas sunning themselves.
The one-time plantation is off the Northwest Coastal Road (Route 63) and about 2½ miles north of sleepy Frederiksted with its 3,700 residents on the island’s northwest coast.
The stone ruins of the old factory date to 1787. The stonework is flanked by giant baobab trees that came from Africa with slaves that worked the sugar cane. Above Estate Butler Bay on the hillside are the stone remains of an old windmill that once powered a second plantation.
Butler Bay is one of 15 stops along the 72-mile St. Croix Heritage Trail. The site is managed by the St. Croix Landmarks Society, a grass-roots group, and public access is limited.
Estate Butler Bay was also reportedly the home of General Buddhoe, the leader of the 1848 slave uprising on St. Croix. Buddhoe, whose given name was Moses Gottlieb, was not a slave but a free black man working at the estate.
An 1847 reform from Denmark’s King Christian VIII ordered that slave babies born after July 28, 1847, would be free, but slavery would not be abolished for 12 years.
The slaves on St. Croix were angry. Meetings were held and Buddhoe was a key figure.
On July 3, 1848, about 8,000 slaves marched on Frederiksted demanding their freedom. They destroyed several estates. The governor, Peter von Scholten, decreed the immediate emancipation of all slaves in the Danish West Indies. Buddhoe was deported and told he would be executed if he ever returned.
The bike tour also passed Fort Frederik in Frederiksted (the structure dates to 1760) and a Catholic church, St. Patrick’s. It is made of cut limestone with a mortar made of conch and molasses.
St. Croix was one of the richest sugar islands in the West Indies from 1760 to 1820 when production was high and sugar prices were stable.
In 1803, St. Croix’s population was 30,000, of whom 26,500 were slaves who planted, harvested and processed sugar cane on nearly 220 plantations. Most were 75 to 750 acres. The ruins of about 50 plantations remain, although public access is limited.
St. Croix is the largest and least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas and St. John are the other two islands, 40 miles to the northeast. St. Croix covers 84 square miles and has about 52,000 residents. The western part of the island is a rain forest; the eastern end is rocky and arid.
The island is celebrated for its laid-back attitude and its funky beach bars. It’s hard not to like a place where the average high temperature is 82 degrees and the water temperature is 80 degrees. Its western shore is known for sterling sunsets. There are more than 50 dive sites. It is also a rum-making island.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus landed at Salt River on the north-central coast. He was greeted with spears and arrows from the native Caribs. It is now a historic site.
Colorful Christiansted on the north coast is one of the largest cities. It features a historic district with more than 100 buildings that date to the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the best-preserved towns in the Caribbean.
At its center is Fort Christiansvaern. It was completed by the Danes in 1749 to protect the island from pirates, privateers, invaders and slave uprisings. English is the language, the dollar is the currency but Crucians drive on the left, not the right.
Buck Island Reef National Monument off the north coast is the island’s No. 1 tourist attraction. It is one of the premier diving-snorkeling spots in the Caribbean and gets 50,000 visitors a year.