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  • In Search of Sir Turtle

    Eye to Eye with One of the
    Ocean's Ancient Mariners

    by Walt Stearns, Sep. 1997



    Some might say I've become a bit nuts about sea turtles. Maybe so. They are remarkable creatures; reptiles that have been wandering the tropical oceans of the world for the last 150 million years. Unlike their freshwater brethren, who swim by using webbed hind feet, sea turtles move through the water like birds on the wing, driven by the powerful, graceful strokes of their elongated fore flippers.

    In the waters surrounding the Cayman Islands, particularly off Grand Cayman's famed Seven Mile Beach, meeting one of these ancient mariners face to face has become just about routine. When I don't see a turtle during a dive, it's almost as though something's amiss. Thanks to the efforts of the Cayman Government protection and release program provided by the Cayman Turtle Farm on Grand Cayman, turtles have become more common than large groupers, Green Morays and Eagle Rays. In the '60s, '70s and mid '80s, it would have been the other way around. When I began visiting the Cayman Islands in 1979, the sighting of a sea turtle was more than just a treat, it was truly a rare, special event.

    What It Once Was it May Become Again

    To say sea turtles are a strong part of the heritage of the Cayman Islands would be an understatement. Take a look at the side of a Cayman Airways jet, the island's currency, the official seal or even an advertisement in a dive or travel magazine for the Cayman Islands and you will see a turtle symbol. The Caymans were originally called Las Tortugas by the Spaniards, owing to the abundance of Green and Hawksbill Turtles. This was the very resource that brought the first colonists to the islands during the early to mid 1500s. From that point to the beginning of the 20th century, Grand Cayman was known for its supply of fresh turtle meat. However, over time the turtles were so heavily harvested that they were nearly eradicated from Cayman waters.

    But that was then, this is now. It is encouraging that turtles are making a comeback. The biggest reason is the government supported Cayman Turtle Farm Head Start release program. When the farm was founded in 1968 by Mariculture Ltd., making it the first of its kind anywhere in the world, it was an entirely commercial venture, with the sole goal of producing turtle meat and byproducts. At this time things were still looking pretty sad for sea turtles. Although there were laws to protect them from molestation and harvesting, wild turtles were still in serious trouble, with their numbers spiraling downward. Sometime around the early '80s, the Cayman Islands Government realized something had to be done immediately. Thus, they looked to the turtle farm for its working knowledge of sea turtle husbandry. The goal became to commence a restocking program even if it meant buying the farm, which occurred in 1983.

    The Cayman Turtle Farm is a fully operational facility specializing in sea turtle mariculture. At present, the grounds overlooking the ocean on Grand Cayman's Northwest Point hold an average of more than 17,000 to 18,000 turtles (both adults and hatchlings). The largest number (96 percent) are Greens, the farm's mainstay. The facility's main breeding colony pool, spanning an area twice the size of basketball court, houses some 330 adults.

    Typically, Green Sea Turtles do not reach sexual maturity until about 15 to 25 years of age, at which time they can weight up to 500 pounds. Several of the farm's grand ladies tip the scales at a whopping 687 pounds! The remaining segment of the stock is comprised of one breeding pair of Hawksbills and one Loggerhead for exhibition and education. In addition to the farm's own stock there are some 420 Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles, part of a separate head start program with the Mexican Government.

    On average, one turtle lays close to 100 eggs in a single clutch. The survival rate for hatchlings at the farm during their first year is roughly 50 to 60 percent. This is dramatically different than their chances in the wild, which are typically less than five percent. Turtles must be cared for at the farm until they have completed their first year. That's because the moment a hatchling leaves the nest, it is easy prey for anything (sea birds, fish, etc.) fancying a taste for baby turtles. If it makes it to the end of its first year, it will be about the size of a hardcover book. Thus, holding the babies until they reach 12 to 14 months of age gives them a head start for survival in the wild. Since the farm began releasing turtles in 1980, the facility has (with both patron and government support) released 27,330 Green and Hawksbill Turtles.

    While the Cayman Turtle Farm has made honorable strides, it also exists to produce food. According to the farm's acting general manager, Ken Hydes, 'Basically, if the farm was not here to provide turtle meat, then they [the turtles] would be taken by other means; namely through the harvesting of wild individuals.' Ken claims this to be the strongest argument in terms of economical/ecological semantics in support of the farm's presence.

    The farm does not make a profit; most of the time it's lucky to break even. The problem is the cost of raising enough turtles to a commercially viable size. In order to keep both the farm and the release program healthy, certain production quotas have to be met, especially when 40 percent of each preceding year's surviving hatch is earmarked for release. This is not an easy thing to master, even with a good mating season. For example, a bad season, such as1994, produced only 3,000 hatchlings. On the other hand, a good season (1996) produced 12,000. Of that, the expected number of year old turtles slated for release this year will come close to 2,000.

    While this all sounds like an accounting nightmare, Ken pointed out, 'It's still a wonderful feeling to see something get put back into our waters.' In spite of good years and bad, what helps keep the farm operating in the black is tourists who come to see the turtles. 'When people visit the farm, they leave with a better appreciation or understanding of sea turtles.'

    Once turtles are released, it's not a case of 'out of sight, out of mind; ' the work continues. In addition to their in-house activities, the farm tries to keep tabs on where the turtles go and how they progress. Those released from the farm are tagged via two systems. The first, referred to as a living tag, is a small chip taken from the hatchling's belly boneplate and surgically grafted to a spot on its top shell. When completed, the turtle will bear a small, permanent white mark somewhere in the third center scute (the divided sections of the top shell), based on the year it was hatched.

    The second method uses titanium flipper tags placed near the tip of both the right and left foreflippers. Once done, the identity of each turtle (species, sex, release date) is kept on record and updated every time the animal is encountered, either through capture or sightings. All of the farms' alphanumeric identification codes begin with the letters KY. Most of the turtles I run into in the Cayman Islands feature both types of tags.

    To ascertain the progress of the released turtles, the farm also performs several field surveys, most in North Sound. With the use of nets, farm employees and graduate students collect as many as they can find, as well as any wild individuals they come across. Once caught, they are measured, weighed and given a cursory checkup (examination for injuries or signs of growths and other disease).

    In addition to its work as the Cayman Island Sea Turtle Head Start program, the farm also functions as a rehabilitation center for injured and sick turtles. Whenever a turtle is brought in by the island's law enforcement officials it will be treated and cared for until it is deemed healthy enough to go back into the wild. In the process it is tagged and logged into the data file for future reference.

    Finding sea turtles during a dive is not difficult. It takes a watchful eye in all directions. More times than I can count, I have watched these little rascals on the half shell leisurely cruising at the heals of divers without ever being noticed.

    When searching for turtles, keep in mind that their favored routes are often along both the crest of a drop-off and the shoreward facing edge of the same reef. Periodically scan the horizon in all directions, as well as the area overhead, to ensure a turtle encounter.

    Several of the best dive sites for turtles include both Grand Cayman's West Wall (from Northwest Point Drop-off to the bottom of West Bay) and Little Cayman's northside (from Jackson Reef to Bloody Bay). Most productive is the West Bay region of Grand Cayman. Sites on my personal list of favorites include Dragon's Hole, Big Dipper, Eagle's Nest, Oro Verde Wall and Hammerhead Hole. Closer to shore, Cemetery Reef South, Spanish Anchor, the Doc Polson wreck and Wildlife Reef are almost as good. Dive traffic on these sites is typically lower than on Orange Canyon, Big Tunnel, Paradise or Rhapsody Reef. Turtles can also be found in the Seven Mile Beach/West Bay area, which has several varieties of tasty sponges; a favorite food of the turtles.

    If you want to get close to a turtle don't swim as if you're in the Olympics. Shy by nature, sea turtles aren't fond of sudden movements or fast approaches. They interpret this as a sign of attack. Movement should be slow, steady and deliberate. Above all, don't swim straight at them; swim on a parallel course, while slowly closing the gap. Also, avoid touching them; it is against the law to harass or molest a sea turtle. Approach one the right way and you'll look like somebody taking his or her dog for a walk!