Tourists, dog walkers and seaside joggers got to watch a rare daytime nesting by a huge turtle who waddled past them and started digging her nest on Seven Mile Beach on Tuesday afternoon.
The green sea turtle attracted dozens of spectators as she tried to dig a nest for her eggs through roots and sand underneath bushes and trees on the beach.
Several people who watched the turtle emerge from the water around 5.15pm called police and the Department of Environment to alert them about the turtle.
“This turtle’s been acting strangely,” said Mark Orr, chief conservation officer at the Department of Environment, who came to the beach to monitor the nesting. “I heard she had come onto the beach twice earlier in the day.”
Turtles usually come on shore at night to lay their eggs and seeing a turtle nest in daylight is an unusual sight.
The turtle, which Mr. Orr estimated weighed about 350 pounds, spent about 40 minutes on the beach before making her back to the sea without laying her eggs. Children on the beach watched wide-eyed as the huge turtle lumbered down the sand. “Does it bite?” asked one little boy.
“There are a lot of roots up there,” said Mr. Orr, explaining why the turtle may have abandoned her efforts to dig the nest. “It’s hard to dig through them, but also the baby turtles would have a hard time fighting their way up through the roots once they’ve hatched.” Mr. Orr, having spotted a large three-pronged hook stuck underneath the turtle’s front left fin, called on the help of four or five men on the beach Tuesday to try to turn the turtle on her back so he could try to remove the hook.
The turtle proved too strong and too determined to get back into the water and shrugged the men off. She returned to the sea with the hook still in her body.
Mr. Orr and other Department of Environment staff remained on the beach Tuesday night to await the turtle’s return as she appeared to be ready to drop her eggs. They planned put a box around her to keep her in place while they removed the hook. However, she did not return to the site on Tuesday night.
Usually, turtle nests are found by teams of volunteers who comb Cayman’s beaches for turtle nests in the early morning, looking for telltale tracks in the sand and mounds and depressions that show where a turtle has made a nest in the night.
By the end of July, Department of Environment personnel and volunteers had found and marked 101 turtle nests, including 71 loggerhead nests and 30 green turtle nests.
Janice Blumenthal of the Department of Environment said four more loggerhead nests had been found so far this year than by the same time in 2010. “It’s definitely the best year we’ve had for loggerheads,” said Ms Blumenthal. “It’s too early to say for the green turtles.”
“We’re hoping for another record-breaking nesting season,” she added.
However, she warned that the numbers, while encouraging, were no reason to rest on one’s laurels as the numbers are still nowhere near what they should be. There have already been several hatchings, she said, with loggerhead eggs laid in May hatching in July. The baby turtles emerge 55 days after the turtles lay the eggs. The loggerheads will continue to lay eggs until August.
The green sea turtles start laying eggs in mid-June and continue to September, and sometimes as late as early October.
“The biggest problems for the nesting turtles are the lights and the poaching of adult turtles,” Ms Blumenthal said.
Although there have been no reports of poaching of nesting turtles from Cayman beaches this year, Mr. Orr and others are routinely on watch at a number of sites where poachers have been known to strike.
The Department of Environment is looking for more volunteers to help keep find and keep track of the turtle nests in Grand Cayman.
Volunteer Chris Mattock has been on turtle nest duty each summer for the last three years. “I wanted to do something on the island when I got here to help out and I am interested in the environment. I asked around and a friend put me in touch with Janice,” he said, after he finished raking away the evidence of a nesting turtle tracks on Seven Mile Beach on Tuesday morning. Through Mr. Mattock, Rozlyn Glanfield came on board and now the two walk Seven Mile Beach in the early morning looking for the “batabano” tracks of the turtle.
Once they find tracks, they text the location to Ms Blumenthal and then she, along with other volunteers or with intern Kyshon Missick, arrives at the scene with rakes, shovels, a metal stick and a measuring tape.
The species of turtle is evident from the tracks they leave, as well as the shape of the eggs, so the Department of Environment can keep a record of what kind of turtle has laid eggs at a certain site, and when those eggs would be expected to hatch.
Once the exact location is triangulated and logged, the turtle tracks are raked over and the mound and depression in the sand left by the turtle to make the nest are flattened down. Ms Blumenthal said this is so that other volunteers or members of the public who report the location of nests do not think they are new tracks, but also to ensure that poachers don’t find out where the nest is.
Since turtles lay eggs three to six times in nesting season and usually make a nest near to a site they have already laid their eggs, poachers can predict when an adult turtle will return to a beach.
Shortly before the eggs hatch, the Department of Environment contacts home owners and stratas near the nest to ask them to turn off their outside lights because baby turtles are attracted to light. Before the beach was developed and dotted with condos, hotels and houses, the only light at night was the moon and stars on the water. Now, the lights from homes and pools along the beach can confuse the baby turtles, who often end up in pools or waddling lost into people’s yards and gardens.
Baby turtles that hatch during the day and are reported to the Department of Environment are kept in safety in boxes or buckets of sand until nightfall when they are brought back to the beach and released near the water. During daylight, they are easy targets for birds as the baby turtles take their very first swim because their dark silhouettes are clearly visible against the white sandy bottom in the shallow water.
Anyone who finds a nest or turtle tracks on a beach or who wants to volunteer to help is asked to call the Department of Environment on 938-6378 (NEST).