The start of May signals the beginning of the sea turtle nesting season in the Cayman Islands and the staff of the Department of Environment begin monitoring beaches.
For the last nine years the DOE and trained volunteers have been conducting a systematic survey of Cayman’s beaches looking for signs of sea turtle nesting and hatching.
Nesting and hatching activities typically occur at night. When a female sea turtle is ready to lay her eggs, she will slowly emerge from the sea and make her way up the beach in search of a suitable spot to dig her nest and lay her eggs.
After laying between 80-120 eggs the turtle covers the nest with sand and makes her way back to the water. After about two months, hatchling turtles emerge from the sand and make their way down to the water.
The monitoring 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 sixteen beaches in Little Cayman have been identified as suitable for sea turtle nesting based on beach characteristics, information from historical records and anecdotal reports.
Historically four species of sea turtle have been known to nest in the Cayman Islands: the green sea turtle, the hawksbill turtle, the loggerhead turtle, and the leatherback turtle. Today only the green and loggerhead turtles are the predominate nesters each year and these too, are at critically low levels. Hawksbill nests have only been recorded in 1999 and 2006. To date no leatherback nests have been recorded since the programme started, although a leatherback turtle did emerge on a beach in Cayman Brac in 2003 but did not nest.
During a typical nesting season from May to October DOE staff find an average of 43 nests in Grand Cayman, 12 nests in Cayman Brac, and 11 nests in Little Cayman. While it is encouraging that turtles are still nesting on the islands this is a far cry from the over 1 million nests that probably occurred when Cayman was considered the largest rookery for green turtles in the Caribbean. ‘Sea turtles don’t nest every year but may nest more than once per season. Typically each turtle will lay 3 to six nests per season’, says DOE Research Officer II Joni Solomon.
‘So if you do the math you can see that Cayman’s remaining nesting population is critically low compared to historic numbers and data collected from similar projects in places such as Florida, Hawaii, and Tortuguero.’
Through the study it is estimated that the number of nesting adults is approximately 17-26 females for both green and loggerhead turtles, with the occasional hawksbill turtle nesters being significantly lower than this.
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.
The smaller turtles that we see in the sounds and around coral reefs 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 many different parts of the Caribbean, but once nesting season is over they return to there feeding grounds.
Unfortunately turtles face a multitude of threats both natural and man-made. Even before they reach the beach dangers lie in the waters offshore. ‘Despite the fact that all species of turtle found in Cayman waters are either endangered or critically endangered, legal turtle fishing still occurs in our country,’ said Ms Solomon. ‘ Only a few traditional fishermen have fishing licences, but with the majority of captures taking place when the large adults come to Cayman to breed, right before the nesting season, it takes a significant toll on the number of females making it to shore to nest.
Because the nesting population is so low the subtraction of even one individual can have tremendous repercussions for the future of the species.’
The sea turtle fishing season begins in November and ends at the end of April. At the close of the 2006-2007 season 7 adult turtles were slaughtered.
Once onshore, troubles for nesting females and hatching baby turtles continue. During the 2006 nesting season nests were run over by vehicles driving on beaches and eggs were crushed. Construction work along the coast brought bulldozers rolling over nests as well. There were also cases of eggs being stolen from nests, nesting turtles being poached, and baby turtles dying after being disorientated away from the sea by poorly placed lighting.
What you can do
Sea turtles populations are in a critical state, not just in Cayman, but throughout the world. However, you can help 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 M-F), or 926-0135 on Grand Cayman (nights & weekends), 926-0136 on Cayman Brac, and 916-7021 or 926-2342 on Little Cayman
If you should be fortunate enough to see a nesting turtle stay behind her at a distance and remain quiet. Do not use any lights, including flashlights, flash photography, or video equipment. Do not put your hand on or near the turtle. Any distractions may frighten or disorientate her, causing her to return to the ocean before completely covering her nest. 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.