Kelly Stewart and Aaron Hutchins

Late one sun-drenched afternoon in May, on the southwest tip of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Kelly Stewart Ph.D. ’08 was kneeling on the empty beach of the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge when the park ranger pulled up on his all-terrain vehicle to see what she was doing.

A low peninsula with nearly three miles of uninterrupted, stunningly beautiful white sandy beach, the 327-acre refuge is one of the largest leatherback sea turtle nesting sites in the U.S. and its territories. It is almost always closed to the public so that endangered leatherback and hawksbill turtles, and the threatened green turtles, can use the beach safely.

Stewart had special privileges to be there—she manages the local turtle-conservation project—and she and an assistant were carefully sifting the area from which tiny leatherback turtles had hatched and emerged the night before. Counting the left-behind shells, they uncovered four stragglers still absorbing the yolk of their eggs. Stewart gathered them into a soft-sided bucket for safekeeping until dark, when she would release them to the water and wish them well on their life of swimming the oceans.

Eventually, Stewart drove the turtles in her own ATV to where Aaron Hutchins M.E.M. ’04 and his family were sitting, there for the few hours in which locals are allowed to fish from the beach. Hutchins was born on the island and has been coming to Sandy Point since before it was a federal property. U.S. Fish and Wildlife rules prohibit touching the baby turtles or taking photos, so he and his family leaned over the bucket to marvel at the five-inch-long, soft-looking turtles and their outsized front flippers.

As they chatted, Stewart and Hutchins realized that they had been students at the Duke Marine Lab at the same time: In 2004, Hutchins was finishing his studies at the Nicholas School of the Environment while Stewart was in her second year of pursuing a doctorate in marine ecology. They didn’t know it then, but their dedication to these turtles would bring them together on this sun-drenched peninsula.

Standing above the hatchlings, they confirmed details about Stewart’s upcoming Turtle Day education and fundraising event that Hutchins soon would host at his business—the Leatherback Brewing Company. Maker of several popular brews, including Beach Life Blonde Ale and Island Life Lager, the company sports a leatherback turtle logo on its cans.

The leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is the largest of the sea turtle species. Considered endangered and protected by international treaties, the species was thriving in the Atlantic during the 1990s and 2000s, says Stewart. For the last decade, however, leatherback nests have been declining at all of the major nesting beaches in the Northwest Atlantic, including St. Croix.

What’s happening to the turtles? Stewart and her peers want to know if they’re simply switching beaches—she and her colleagues in Puerto Rico regularly compare data—or if they’re disappearing from the seas, and why.

Since childhood, Stewart has been curious about the ocean and the creatures that live in and near it. She grew up far from the Caribbean— in northern Ontario, Canada— but her curiosity about the ocean and its ecosystems started early. She spent parts of her childhood visiting Northern Ireland, her birthplace. She wandered a private beach with dreams of being a marine biologist or a foreign correspondent.

Her professors at the University of Guelph further fueled her interest in marine biology, and after graduating, she continued to soak up whatever she could about sea turtle behavior. By the time she saw her first leatherback turtle in 1998 (just south of Avon, North Carolina, at the time the farthest north for a confirmed leatherback nest), she’d been mailing letters to most of the authors in the first edition of Biology of the Sea Turtle. Jeanette Wyneken, a professor of biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University, invited her to do her master’s work there; she mentored Stewart as she documented leatherback nesting on Florida’s central Atlantic coast—work featured by science writer Carl Safina in his book Voyage of the Turtle.

In 2001, Stewart presented her leatherback research at the annual sea turtle symposium in Philadelphia. Larry Crowder, then a Duke professor of environment, was there, too. Struck by her intellectual spark and the data she’d already collected, he encouraged her to consider Duke’s doctoral program.

“Kelly has made extraordinary contributions on her own and in teams that she’s worked with,” says Crowder, now at Stanford University. Throughout her career, he says, “she’s maintained the Kelly Stewart authenticity.”

Today, Stewart is director of the St. Croix Leatherback Project, a collaboration of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington D.C.-based Ocean Foundation, where she is a research scientist. She also collaborates with the Marine Turtle Genetics Program of the federal Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California (NOAA-NMFS), and she is supported by a grant to do sea turtle genetics work around the Caribbean and other places the turtles may go.

The beach is where she does the fieldwork, but she retreats to a seaside cottage in Frederiksted just down from the refuge to compile the data, and once nesting season is over, she’ll return to San Diego to work with colleagues to analyze the data.

“This is a lifestyle,” she says, eyes twinkling.

Hutchins’ island life has spanned roles in government, advocacy, community development, eco-tourism, and business, all with a goal to protect the natural environment of the Virgin Islands and a commitment to keeping active and strengthening community.

There was the childhood spent scampering about in the St. Croix bush, where he’s now leading a nonprofit organization constructing multi-use trails. There was a job as director of the U.S.V.I. Environmental Protection Division, which meant protecting waters throughout the territory, including around the famous national park on St. John and at the Buck Island marine sanctuary. He also worked to develop the nation’s first coral-reef indicators under the Clean Water Act. Then, as V.I. and Puerto Rico program director for the Nature Conservancy, he worked to launch coral reef restoration programs and land conservation strategies.

And, of course, the turtles: seeing them at Sandy Point and around St. Croix, and then again during college when he traveled to Costa Rica to support a research project on leatherbacks, and now on the cans of the beer he’s proud to produce on the island.

“I wanted to name something after the leatherback turtle for a long time,” he says, sitting on the beach where he learned to swim.

Hutchins and his business partners opened Leatherback Brewing Company in 2017, the same year that hurricanes Irma and Maria swept over the island. They persevered and soon were honored as the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce New Business of the Year and certified as a VI Clean Coasts eco-business that is helping to reduce the influx of single-use plastic in the USVI. Now they have a brewpub on St. Thomas and are distributing their beer to Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, and Florida—not far from where Stewart first studied leatherbacks.

A female leatherback will leave up to fourteen nests each season, and turtles that visit Sandy Point also will drop eggs on Culebra Island, Puerto Rico, and other islands in the Caribbean, says Stewart, during a coffee break in July. It was the end of the leatherback nesting season, and her team had counted just ninety-seven nests from twenty-seven individual leatherback turtles. In the 2000s, there had been 500 to 700 leatherback nests at Sandy Point each season.

But Stewart and her team had recently seen a turtle named Rosie back on the beach. “She’s the fifth-biggest leatherback turtle ever observed at Sandy Point, and she still has the flipper tag—PPQ244—that was put on her in 1999.” Rosie’s carapace, not including head, tail, and flippers, measures 174 centimeters; that’s about five feet, eight inches. The average nesting female leatherback measures 153 centimeters and weighs up to 1,000 pounds.

Rosie is a grandmother by now. Female leatherbacks usually return to nest at the same beach or a beach in the region where they themselves hatched. With genetic samples from the hatchlings at Sandy Point, Stewart will be able to learn more about the family histories of these turtles and their behavior, including how soon a female leatherback is sexually mature (likely ten to fourteen years).

“We’re getting close to having a perfect genetic match between a hatchling and a nesting female,” she says.

Duke students are part of that developing science. Stewart co-teaches the Duke “Sea Turtle Ecology” class on Culebra and Sandy Point. (The Nicholas School is waiting to learn whether next spring’s trip can proceed, depending on COVID restrictions.)

In the field, Stewart tells students and volunteers to put away their cameras and pay attention to the behavior of the turtles— to learn to anticipate a turtle by recognizing the smell of wet sand turned over the by strong flippers, to listen to the entranced breathing of the turtles as they drop their eggs into the caverns they’ve dug, or to see the shark bites and fishing-line injuries that chronicle a turtle’s life in the seas. Blog posts written by Duke students on those trips reflect Stewart’s gentle teaching and the majesty of the turtles in their environment.

Stewart was eager to finish her coffee and get back to building that database of leatherback genetic data. Across the island, Hutchins was on his way to the brewery and his island adventures shop. And out in the ocean, leatherback turtles were circulating, hunting for jellyfish, and waiting for dark.

Zuiker is a research-communications specialist in the Duke Clinical Research Institute. He blogs about Eastern box turtles at

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