Since the start of the sea turtle nesting season in May, staff at the Department of Environment have been monitoring the beaches.
This year marks the tenth year of the DOE’s sea turtle nesting programme where trained volunteers and DOE staff survey Cayman’s beaches looking for signs of sea turtle nesting.
Sea turtles usually nest at night. The female turtle emerges from the surf, makes her way up the beach, and lays a nest of typically 100-130 eggs. The turtle then returns to the water and will often repeat the process several times during the season to ensure that at least one of the eggs survives.
‘The odds of surviving to adulthood are only one in 1,000’, said DOE research officer and programme coordinator Joni Kirkconnell.
Nests are monitored through incubation and then data on the success of the nest is collected.
The survey is conducted in the early morning hours when evidence of nesting, such as track marks from turtles, can best be seen.
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.
All sea turtle species are either endangered or threatened.
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, 2006, and 2007, and in these years nesting was attributed to only one or two individual turtles. 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 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 more than one 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 nest more than once per season. Typically each turtle will lay three to six nests per season,’ says Mrs. Kirkconnell. ‘Nesting is credited to less then a dozen individuals per species, so every one counts.’
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 seen offshore 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.
Turtles face a multitude of threats both natural and man-made in the Cayman Islands.
The 2007 nesting season saw several sea turtles poached as they attempted to nest, baby turtles dying after being disorientated away from the sea by poorly placed lights, and sea turtles being entrapped and killed by discarded fishing lines. The 2008 season has already started out with a poaching attempt made on a juvenile green turtle.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
Sea turtles are in a critical state, not just in Cayman, but throughout the world. But you can help. Here are some ideas:
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 and reduce noise
Clear away items such as beach chairs and recreational equipment, from the beach at night and reduce night-time noise and activities along the beach
Do not drive on beaches
This applies to 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
Contact the Department of Environment on 949-8469 (9-5 M-F), or 926-0135 Grand Cayman (nights & weekends), 926-0136 (Cayman Brac), 916-7021 or 926-2342 (Little Cayman)
Remember that sea turtles and their eggs are protected under the Marine Conservation Law, and violators face steep fines and imprisonment. If you see anyone 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.