Turtles survive wild Wilma

Two Cayman Islands sea turtles recently survived Hurricane Wilma at sea when the devastating storm passed over their winter feeding grounds in Mexico and the Florida Keys.

Both endangered green turtles were tagged with state-of-the-art satellite transmitters while nesting in Grand Cayman this summer. After the transmitters were attached, the turtles migrated hundreds of kilometres across the open ocean to their distant feeding grounds where they live while they are not nesting, states a press release.

Hurricane Wilma – the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record – passed directly over the area inhabited by Pearl, and then headed for the Florida Keys where Rogest has been living.

‘We’ve received transmission from both Pearl and Rogest since the storm,’ said Joni Solomon, of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment. ‘The most recent message from Rogest’s transmitter was received a few hours after Wilma hit the Florida Keys.’

Hurricanes can kill sea turtles or cause them to wash ashore – though both endangered Cayman reptiles survived the storm. Pearl and Rogest most likely rode out the hurricane at depths of several hundred meters below the surface although they must have come up many times in the midst of the storm to breathe.

In addition to dangers to adult turtles, hurricane Wilma has had a devastating impact on turtle nesting. In the Cayman Islands, high seas from Hurricane Wilma flooded green turtle nests on Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman.

‘Nesting turtles in the Cayman Islands are critically endangered,’ said Janice Blumenthal, of the Department of Environment. ‘Loss of nests to hurricanes can hinder population recovery, and we are concerned that global warming may bring about an increase in the frequency and severity of storms.’

‘Sea turtles are well-adapted to survive even intense natural disasters such as hurricanes. It is dangers caused by humans that threaten their survival. Human impacts such as hunting turtles and eggs, accidental capture in shrimp nets and long-line fisheries, and loss of nesting and feeding habitat threaten turtles with extinction,’ said Ms. Blumenthal.

Satellite tracking turtles from nesting beaches to feeding grounds is a first-step toward understanding their conservation needs. Darwin Project Leader Brendan Godley said, ‘Locating the foraging sites of marine turtle populations is vital if we are to protect them. After all, only a tiny proportion of their lifespan of many decades is spent on or near the nesting beach.’

The Cayman Islands turtle tracking project is a collaborative effort of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, the UK Marine Turtle Research Group’s Turtles in the UK Overseas Territories project, and US website saeturtle.org

Pearl’s satellite transmitter was sponsored by the Richardson family (long-term visitors to the Cayman Islands), and Rogest’s transmitter was sponsored by the DiveTech Kids Sea Camp Outreach Program.

Satellite tracks are made available to the public in near real-time on the seaturtle.org website.

To check on Pearl and Rogest and see how they survived the storm, log on to the satellite tracking website www.seaturtle.org/tracking/cayman

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