May signals the start of the sea turtle nesting season in the Cayman Islands and the staff of the Department of Environment will begin monitoring the beaches.
A press release from the DoE says that for the last eight years the DoE and trained volunteers have been conducting a systematic survey of Cayman’s beaches looking for signs of sea turtle nesting.
The release explains, ‘The programme began in Little Cayman in 1998 and was later introduced on Grand Cayman in 1999 and Cayman Brac in 2003. Twenty-seven beaches in Grand Cayman, seven beaches in Cayman Brac, and 16 beaches in Little Cayman have been identified as suitable for sea turtle nesting based on beach characteristics, and information from historical records and anecdotal reports.
Historically four species of sea turtle have been known to nest in the Cayman Islands. These include the green sea turtle, the hawksbill turtle, the loggerhead turtle, and the leatherback turtle.
‘Today only green and loggerhead turtles nest each year and even these are at critically low levels. There have been no recorded hawksbill nests since 1999 and there is fear that the nesting population may now be locally extinct. Since the programme started no leatherback nests have been found, although a leatherback turtle did emerge on a beach in Cayman Brac in 2003,’ said the press release.
During a typical nesting season from May to October DoE staff find on average 43 nests in Grand Cayman, 12 nests in Cayman Brac, and 11 nests in Little Cayman. While it is encouraging that turtles still nest, this is a far cry from the over one million nests that probably occurred when Cayman was considered the largest rookery for green turtles in the Caribbean, the release says. ‘Sea turtles don’t nest every year but nest more than once per season. Typically each turtle will lay three to six nests per season’, says DoE Research Officer Joni Solomon. ‘So if you do the math you can see that Cayman’s remaining nesting population is very low compared to historic numbers.’
People often find it surprising that nesting numbers are so low when turtles are frequently seen in our waters. This is because turtles are migratory animals that do not spend their entire life in one area, says the release. ‘The smaller turtles that we see off shore are juvenile turtles that only use Cayman’s waters for feeding. When they are older they will move away and nest on different beaches in the Caribbean. These turtles do not contribute to Cayman’s nesting population. The large nesters make their journey back to Cayman’s beaches from different parts of the Caribbean.’
What you can do
DoE notes that sea turtles are in a critical state, not just in Cayman, but throughout the world. Nesting turtles face a multitude of threats both natural and man-made. People living along the beach can help reduce these threats by:
• Reducing beach lighting: Beach lighting can disorientate hatchling turtles away from the sea and result in death of the hatchling. Lighting may also deter nesting adults from coming ashore. Eliminate, redirect, or shield any lights that can be seen from the beach.
• Remove obstacles, such as beach chairs and recreational equipment, from the beach at night.
• Reduce night-time noise and activities along the beach
• Eliminate driving vehicles on beaches, including heavy equipment. Vehicles can crush hatchlings and eggs. The public is reminded that the Planning Department must be contacted before heavy machinery is used on the beach and the Department of Environment must be contacted if works are required to take place in the sea.
• Report any nesting or hatching activity to the Department of Environment – 949-8469 (9-5 Monday to Friday), or 926-6147 Grand Cayman (nights and weekends), 926-0136 (Little Cayman and Cayman Brac).
• Remember that sea turtles and their eggs are protected under the Marine Conservation Law, and violators face steep fines and imprisonment. If you see persons harming or taking sea turtles or their eggs call 911.
The DoE Marine Turtle Programme relies heavily on the support of volunteers. Volunteers are trained by members of the DoE staff on how to identify signs of nesting and then accompany staff members on beach walks. Beach walks take place three to four times during the week, starting between 5:30-6am, and cover all beaches around the islands. Beaches are divided into sections and each volunteer walks a small section of that beach.
If you would like to volunteer for the programme or see signs of sea turtle nesting please contact the DOE at 949-8469.