Lemme Pemberton: An army of one | Inspire

There are heroic turtle conservation efforts across the Caribbean, often started and sustained by indomitable individuals who embody the idea of being the change they want to see. And in Nevis, writes Caroline Taylor, that quiet hero is Lemuel “Lemme” Pemberton

  • Lemuel Pemberton interacting with school children as part of the Public Education & Outreach Sea Turtle Quiz. Photo courtesy Nevis Turtle Group
  • Photo courtesy Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts
  • Green turtle tracks are observed on the shore. Photo courtesy Nevis Turtle Group
  • A sea turtle in the survey programme. Photo courtesy Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts
  • A sea turtle — with satellite transmitter attached — makes its way to the ocean at Pinney’s Beach to join the Tour de Turtles. Photo courtesy Nevis Turtle Group

You can forget how powerful the light of the moon is until you’re on a deserted beach — far from any man-made light pollution, beneath a partially cloudy sky on a full moon night. The visibility changes profoundly with each passing cloud: in one moment, near total darkness; in the next, the rocks and trees and ocean waves begin to regain shape and form.

On one such night, I’m walking along Jones Bay beach — on the northwest coast of Nevis — with (or, really, nearly sprinting behind) Lemuel “Lemme” Pemberton, founder of the Nevis Turtle Group (NTG). Some of those passing clouds have born some rain, so the sand on the beach is saturated, and the tree branches still water-laden as we use the moon and our red-light torches to find our way.

Lemme and the two NTG team members out with him that night are checking the beach for sea turtle tracks, and inspecting nests they’ve previously marked to see which have successfully produced hatchlings.

Lemme works fast, sussing out previously marked nests, and catching sight of turtle tracks (almost instantly identifying which species made them) and any new nests they’ve laid — even under this intermittent moonlight.

He works so fast that, as I try to jot everything down on a clipboard that records nesting data, I don’t even realise we’re standing beneath a manchineel tree until some rainwater drips onto my wrist, blistering the skin. I’d long known toxins in the leaves, bark, and fruit of the tree are so potent that even a small amount in rainwater will do that. So, I blame the moon. Or maybe the clouds. Or maybe just my own slowness relative to Lemme’s staggering speed.

But, good news as I rinse my wrist: the nest he’s just excavated was highly successful, with 95% of eggs having hatched. He’s counted 103 shells, plus just a few others that didn’t hatch. This is a good number for a hawksbill nest, which can fall below 90 successful hatchlings if the conditions are unfavourable.

We check several more nests before Lemme directs us back to the car so that we can head to Lovers Beach on the north coast. Through sea turtle nesting season (March–September, with hatchlings generally emerging between September and November), Nevis sees leatherback, green, and hawksbill turtles — all of which are endangered. The NTG monitors as many beaches as their resources permit.

As we navigate the uneven terrain at Lovers Beach, Lemme tells me how much erosion the beach has experienced in recent years, having lost more than 300 feet. The loss of nesting area is one of many pressures sea turtles face across the Caribbean. Sargassum seaweed is another, and there is a lot on this beach.

With the lights of southern St Kitts flickering in the distance from across the bay, we stop at some rocks demarcating the end of the beach to see if we can spot any turtles come up under the moonlight. Lemme confirms there’s been recent nesting activity by both hawksbills and green turtles here.

In Nevis — with a population of just over 11,000 — Lemme, in many ways, is an army of one … or, perhaps more aptly, the general of a small, guerrilla army

It’s late in the season when I visit in late September, so I know the chance of spotting one is slim. But I hold out faint hope, as I’ve seen leatherbacks and hawksbills nest many times, but never a green turtle.

The beach grows dark as another cloud passes — this time, bringing rain. I’m anything but dressed for it, but sufficiently caught up in conversation with Lemme and the hypnotic sound of the sea that my only thought is how difficult these night patrols are for volunteers across the region. On my last turtle tour — in Matura, Trinidad — the guide was quite ill, her body run ragged from the long nights and often being at the mercy of the elements.

I mention this to Lemme, and discover that his wife is from Trinidad like me. I laugh. And, of course, he knows all the regional turtle conservationists I’ve met over the years. We are all so much more interconnected than we often imagine, as I’m reminded on this Nevis trip.

Even one of the boat attendants on my ride over from St Kitts was Guyanese. Once he realised I was Trini, we enjoyed a good laugh (and a lot of playful banter) about the Guyana Amazon Warriors having just defeated the Trinbago Knight Riders in the Caribbean Premier League T20 cricket finals a few nights before.

In Nevis — with a population of just over 11,000 — Lemme, in many ways, is an army of one … or, perhaps more aptly, the general of a small, guerrilla army. During high season, he says he’ll have maybe four to six people volunteering — but never all on the same night. He’ll often pick them up and drop them back home every evening. But there are times during low season where it’s just him.

It’s gruelling, often thankless, work that he’s been courageously undertaking for more than two decades. He’s typically out seven days a week right through nesting season — sometimes nights, sometimes days.

It was a natural resource management course at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill (Barbados) that first sparked Lemme’s interest in turtle conservation. Upon returning to Nevis in 2001, he was intent on learning which beaches turtles nested on in Nevis, and in what numbers.

He was working at Nevis’ Department of Fisheries at the time, and convinced four of his colleagues to join him. They saw a hawksbill on the first night — on this same Lovers Bay — and the NTG, formally founded in 2003, was born.

In the first year, they counted 12 turtles, and as many as 67 in ensuing years. These were the days where funding enabled them to incrementally build out a robust team and increase their patrols. Though they’ve lost some people in the intervening years — some moved abroad, or went away to study, or got married and had kids — the NTG was making real, meaningful progress.

Lemme and his team completed different kinds of training in Antigua, Trinidad, and with other turtle conservation organisations. Poaching of turtle eggs and the turtles themselves decreased significantly. Awareness and education programmes in schools and communities were successfully changing perspectives on the value of turtles.

“The young people become the adults,” Lemme explains, “and they grew up with an idea of protecting turtles as opposed to the idea of eating them.”

Two of the NTG’s longest-running partners have supported that work: the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) — the world’s oldest sea turtle conservation group; and the Four Seasons Resort Nevis (FSRN), which funds a tracking programme and various educational activities during their annual Sea Turtle Week (19–23 July for 2024).

The STC’s partnership with the FSRN goes back nearly 20 years, starting when David Godfrey, Executive Director of the STC, got a call after a sea turtle had nested right in front of the resort — captivating guests.

But when the hatchlings finally emerged in the middle of the night, the fluorescent lighting at the resort disoriented them, sending them in the wrong direction so that they landed up in one of the resort pools. Many hatchlings died, or got lost in the surrounding vegetation.

It was a turning point for the FSRN, who requested the STC’s help to ensure this never happened again. The first step was changing the resort’s lighting, and training the staff about sea turtles. In the process, they explored partnership opportunities to have a broader educational impact.

It’s gruelling, often thankless, work that Lemuel has been courageously undertaking for more than two decades

The STC was already running a satellite tracking programme to learn more about turtle migration, so the FSRN came on board as a research partner — funding two satellite trackers for nesting turtles on Nevis.

Each July, during Sea Turtle Week, the two organisations work with NTG to locate turtles, apply the trackers, then release the turtles back into the sea at Pinney’s Beach (where the FSRN is located, with the iconic Nevis Peak in the background). The turtles then become part of the STC’s annual Tour de Turtles (a mock race where the turtle that covers the greatest distance — which is trackable online — “wins”).

“Unless somebody sees one with a tag on it or it washes up dead somewhere, we don’t really know where our turtles go to,” Lemme explains. “But with the transmitters, we have an idea where they go. We had one go as far south as Grenada. One nested here then showed up in Barbados the next year. We had one caught in Nicaragua. The two from 2023 showed up in The Bahamas and in the Dominican Republic.”

The team at the FSRN also sees the intrinsic value of different kinds of organisations like these working together to bring incremental but meaningful change.

“We love partnering with them,” explains Mitchell Nover, the resort’s Director of Public Relations & Communication. “It’s important for us that, as you experience Nevis — such a small island, really not overrun with any mass tourism — that we help protect it as much as possible because that’s such a big part of what makes the island so special. To also provide a unique experience for our guests is kind of the icing on the cake, right?”

The pandemic, however, stymied the progress the NTG was making, impacting their most precious resources — manpower and funding. They’d previously been able to offer a modest stipend to volunteers, but that became impossible when funding levels fell.

The STC provides support where it can. “I have such respect for Lemme and his team, and all the work it takes,” says David. “So we provide financial support to the group every year and subsidise training, because the data they’re collecting is vital … They’re the ones on the ground gathering that data meticulously.”

And though all their committed volunteers are welcome and invaluable — as are their long-term partners — what NTG most needs now is funding to continue their work. Leatherback numbers have fallen, though Lemme is unsure whether that’s because of all the pressures on the endangered species, or if it’s just a data problem because of limited patrols. And St Kitts & Nevis still runs an open season on turtle hunting — something that the NTG is, of course, lobbying to circumscribe, or end completely.

Still, Lemme presses on — a living embodiment of that old maxim, “If not me, then who?” Hopefully, potential new partners and funders will ask themselves the same question.


The Four Seasons Resort Nevis (fourseasons.com/nevis/) generously provided hosting in support of this piece. To learn more about or donate to the Nevis Turtle Group, visit nevisturtlegroup.org.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.