Hazardous first steps for Cayman’s baby turtles

The sea can be a dangerous place
for young turtles that have to survive commercial fishing, loose nets, abandoned fishing lines, pollution and
large marine predators, but getting the first few yards from their nests into
the sea can be especially hazardous for baby turtles born in Cayman.

The
turtle nesting season for loggerheads is coming to an end, but green sea turtle
are still laying eggs and many of their hatchlings will not emerge until October.

Until then, the Department of
Environment is keeping a close eye on the nests that are scattered throughout
Cayman’s beaches.

According to Department of
Environment Research Officer Janice Blumenthal, this year has seen a bumper crop
of babies, but that means the poachers are also on the look-out for turtles.

“There have also been a couple of
incidents where turtles have been poached or nearly poached. Enforcement
officers were called to the scene just before a turtle was slaughtered,” she
said.

Last month, police and DoE officers
rescued a turtle that they estimated weighed more than 300 pounds from a shrub
area where poachers dragged her when she came out of the water to lay her eggs.
They found her trussed up and helpless.

After she was freed and raced back
to the sea, the turtle returned to lay her eggs on the beach, which is now
being patrolled by enforcement officers.

Another turtle, this one even
bigger, came onto the sand on Seven Mile Beach to lay her eggs but lost her
bearings when she encountered a row of stacked beach loungers and ended up in a
pool beside a condo development.

“She came up and made her nest and
then went the wrong way,” said Ms Blumenthal.

Mark Orr, the Department of
Environment’s chief conservation officer, climbed into the swimming pool to try
to get the giant turtle out, and he had the bruises to prove it.

It took several people and a large
sheet of plywood to finally heave her out of the pool and back onto the beach.

One ongoing problem that adult and
baby turtles face is they are easily blinded by beach-side lighting, which
causes them to become disoriented and head inland rather than out to sea.

While it might be tempting to try
to catch a quick photo of cute baby turtles as they scurry toward the water for
their first swim, Department of Environment staff warn that flash photography
temporarily blinds the hatchlings.

“Camera flashes and light from
torches can cause them to just go round in circles. It takes them about 15 or
20 minutes to recover,” Ms Blumenthal said.

Hatchling turtles head toward the
brightest horizon to find the ocean, which on a natural beach, would be the
moon and stars over the water.

Ms Blumenthal said the DoE works
with condos and beach-front property owners to turn off lights, but “in some
cases, a nest is missed, so property owners in the area cannot be notified, or
a light unexpectedly causes a disorientation event”.

The
department is asking beach-front property owners to turn off unnecessary lights
as a precaution and to contact the department when new turtle nests/tracks are
found.

Anyone
who see a group of hatchlings heading away from the sea at night should call
the Department of Environment.

Another
problem facing baby turtles is if they try to get into the sea during the day,
they are almost certainly destined to become the prey of large fish and birds
that can easily spot them in the water against the white sand below.

“One afternoon a group of tourists
thought they were doing the right thing by helping to get the baby turtles into
the sea and then they just had to stand by and watch as all the hatchlings got
picked off by the frigate birds hovering above,” Mr. Orr said.

If beach-goers spot turtle
hatchlings making their way into the sea in daylight hours, they are advised to
gather them up in a bucket or cooler of sand and cover the top with a blanket
or towel.

“It’s
best to put them in sand, because if you put them in water, they’ll just swim
and swim and become exhausted,” advised Mr. Orr.

Once night falls, the baby turtles
can then be released on the beach, near the water.

Harming turtles or their eggs
carries a maximum fine of $500,000 and one year in prison, but in reality the
fines and sentences meted out in court are considerably less than the maximum
allowed under the Marine Conservation Law.

Last
year, three men who pleaded guilty to taking a turtle during closed season were
sentenced to 120 hours of community service and fines of $2,000 each, while a
fourth man who was also involved received a sentence to 100 hours of community
service and a $1,000 fine. A harsher penalty was handed down on another man who
was convicted of being in possession of a wild turtle without a licence in
October 2008. He was sentenced to three months in prison.

Ms
Blumenthal said that thanks to regular patrols and checks on the beaches in
Cayman where turtles nest, staff and volunteers have been able to establish
that fewer than 20 loggerheads had laid eggs here so far this season and about
another 20 green sea turtles were expected to lay eggs by October.

These
numbers are higher than in recent years, when they fell to below 10 of those
two species, but are just a tiny fraction of the historical accounts of millions
of turtles nesting in Cayman. Reports of hawksbill and leatherback turtles nesting
locally have been very scarce over the past several years, and they are
considered locally extinct.

The
Department of Environment has identified 27 beaches in Grand Cayman, seven in
Cayman Brac, and 16 in Little Cayman that are suitable for sea turtle nesting.

The
nesting season for turtles runs from May through October. Turtles can lay
between 100 and 130 eggs three to six times each season.

“Killing
one female turtle of nesting age can have a huge impact on the future
population of turtles in Cayman,” said Ms Blumenthal. Each turtle can lay
between 100 and 130 eggs at one time and can lay several times in a single season.

All
sea turtles species are either endangered or threatened.

Anyone
who sees someone harming or taking turtles or their eggs from Cayman’s beaches
should call police on 911.

All
sea turtle species are either endangered or threatened.

The
slowly growing number of turtles that nest in Cayman may be due to changes in
the Marine Conservation (Turtle Protection)(Amendment) Regulations, which came
into effect in December 2007. These expanded the time during which fishermen
are prohibited from taking sea turtles from April to November. The previous
closed season for turtle fishing lasted from May to October.

It
also stipulates that during the turtling season, licensed turtlers can only
catch turtles with shells less than 60cm, or nearly 2 feet, long.

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