Last year was a record year for turtle nesting in Grand Cayman, according to the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, which tagged 270 nests on local beaches.
There were nearly 100 more nests counted in 2012 than in 2011. The previous record year was 2010, when 246 nests were found.
“This was a record year by far,” said DoE research officer Janice Blumenthal, adding some days volunteers were finding as many as 20 nests. In 2012, Department of Environment staff and volunteers logged 180 green turtle nests and 90 loggerhead nests. In 2010, the DoE recorded 177 green turtle nests, 64 loggerhead nests, and five hawksbill nests.
The department has been monitoring turtle nesting since 1999, using the same methods and checking the same beaches each year to make accurate comparisons of nest numbers year on year.
In that first year of monitoring in 1999, the department found only 23 nests, including one green turtle nest, 18 loggerhead nests, two hawksbill nests and two unknown nests.
The latest statistics indicate that between 40 and 60 turtles are laying eggs on Grand Cayman’s beaches.
“We see peaks and falls in nesting numbers. Not all turtles will nest every year, often it’s every two years, for some it’s every three years. In a year when they’re all nesting, we get a peak,” Ms Blumenthal said, explaining why 2011’s numbers were far lower than last year or than in 2010. “That’s why it’s important to monitor over a few years. Next year might be a bit of slow,” she said.
Final nest of 2012
Ms Blumenthal and colleague Paul Chin excavated the final recorded nest of the 2012 nesting season in front of the Grand View apartment complex on Seven Mile Beach on Thursday morning, 3 January – the first time the environmental agency has dealt with a nest in January. They did not find any live baby turtles in the nest, but found about 30 hatched eggs and 70 unhatched or unfertilised eggs.
The 2012 nesting and hatching season lasted longer than usual, with the first nest being located in mid-April.
The turtle that laid the eggs at Grand View was identified by a tag on her shell as a hatchling that had been released from the Turtle Farm in 1987. She dug and laid eggs in five nests outside the Seven Mile Beach complex during the season.
Grand View is one of many residential complexes along Seven Mile Beach where residents and management have embraced the yearly nesting season – turning off lights that can confuse and disorientate the turtles and watching for nests and hatchlings throughout the season.
Complex manager Max Hillier said he gives the residents and owners of the apartments at Grand View regular updates on the nests via e-mail and Facebook and everyone got on board to look out for the hatchlings and to keep them as safe as possible.
“We love the turtles. We’ve gotten our guests involved … education is critical. The more people see that, they care about turning their lights off and educating others,” Mr. Hillier said.
Just weeks after he began managing the complex in 2006, he rescued baby turtles from the Grand View’s swimming pool and took them out into the sea.
“I thought, well, if this is a turtle nesting beach, I need to do something about it, so we installed special light switches to turn all the flood lights off and we educated all the owners and tenants about what turtles need in order to have the best chance of survival,” he said.
“This year was unique for us because this was the first year a single female has dropped her entire season of nests on our beach in the same area,” he said.
For five days before and after the hatchlings are due to emerge from the nest, the lights around the complex are turned off. Other complexes along Seven Mile Beach and other nesting beaches are doing the same as more and more people are getting involved in the conservation of turtles in the Cayman Islands, and as more nests are found.
At Silver Sands, the DoE recorded 19 nests in front of the complex.
“Everybody has gotten on board,” said the DoE’s Mr. Chin. “They turn lights out, they’re doing their part to conserve the turtles. It’s been a good year for us in terms of help from the condos.”
The increased number of turtle nests is also a boon for eco-tourism, he said, as people who witness a turtle digging a nest or see the DoE logging a nest tell them they plan to come back next year to see the hatchings. Each nesting season, DoE staff and volunteers walk the beaches to search for turtle tracks, called batabano, which lead them to the buried nests. They tag and log the nests so they can come back and check if the eggs have hatched about two months after they are laid.
Ms Blumenthal said there had been a lot of interest from volunteers who walked the beaches in the early mornings throughout the nesting season, as well as interest from tourists and regular visitors to Cayman who said they would plan their next trips to coincide with the nesting and hatching season.
One of the biggest problems facing baby turtles is the presence of artificial light on the beaches, from floodlights, pool lights or outdoor patio lights, as the turtles are directed by the light of the moon on the water into the sea once they emerge from the nest. The artificial light disorients them and they often go inland instead of out of sea, falling into swimming pools or wandering onto roads or being eaten by crabs.
“We still want to move as many of the condos as possible over to turtle-friendly lighting. Some places can do that and some can’t. Some places have to darken a whole complex and sometimes that can’t be done because it’ll darken the pool.
“We’re tying to work with them to do the initial refit so the lights are directed down or have wavelengths that don’t attract the turtles and so then they wouldn’t have to turn every light off. In Florida, they’ve done it and it’s reducing electricity costs by 70 per cent, although it is expensive to install initially. We want to get more capacity to do it here and get everyone interested. Everything corrodes so quickly here, so we’re working to educate people about replacing light fixtures with turtle-friendly lighting and installing switches so they can just turn off the lights in certain areas rather than have one switch that turns everything off,” Ms Blumenthal said.
Ideally, the DoE want the turtles to find their own way into the sea, rather than trap them in a pen as if they scuttle around while they are trapped, there’s a chance they will not “imprint” on the beach, meaning they will not know to return to that beach to lay eggs when it is older.
But sometimes, a little help is necessary, just to ensure the baby turtles stand a chance at survival. This year, the DoE has also come up with a tunnel made from tarpaulin and PVC piping that leads from a nest into the sea, so the turtles can have an unimpeded path directly into the ocean.
“It only works if the beach has some slope to it. If it’s on a decline, they go straight down into the water,” Ms Blumenthal said.
The work to ensure every nest is checked is a labour- and time-intensive process, even with the assistance of an increasing number of volunteers, residents and visitors who want to help out and with the growing cooperation of condo managers and businesses.
“It’s a case now where every nest has to be checked on an individual basis,” Ms Blumenthal said. “It would be better if it was an overall system of condos being more turtle friendly. There are a lot of properties.”