Rescued turtles battle tough survival odds


Two baby turtles rescued after being found tangled in vegetation were the last of nearly 17,000 to hatch on Cayman’s beaches during nesting season. 

While researchers are encouraged by the relatively large number of hatchlings from nests laid in 2014, a sobering 1-in-1,000 survival rate suggests that only 17 will make it to adulthood. 

That’s why research teams led by the Department of Environment monitor every nest found in the Cayman Islands and attempt to ensure as many hatchlings as possible make it to the ocean. 

The two stranded turtles were found by researchers excavating a nest on a West Bay beach last week. They were rescued and released into the ocean to join the thousands of hatchlings recorded during the season. 

Researchers counted a total of 216 nests on Grand Cayman since nesting season began in May. A further 71 nests were recorded in Little Cayman, as well as 54 in the Brac. Each individual nesting turtle lays between three and six nests in a season. The numbers represent a success story for the Department of Environment’s monitoring program, which began in 1999, when just 30 nests were recorded.  

‘Increasing threats’ 

Janice Blumenthal, a Department of Environment research officer, said the numbers show encouraging signs of revival for a species that had been on the brink of extinction in Cayman’s waters just over a decade ago. 

But she warned that turtles, which once numbered in the millions in Cayman’s waters, still face a precarious future. 

“Unfortunately, while nesting numbers are increasing, turtles are also facing increasing threats. Illegal take continues to be one of the most serious problems in protecting our nesting population, with incidents occurring every year,” she added. 

Artificial lighting from beach-front properties is another issue because it can cause baby turtles, which use light to orient themselves, to crawl away from the sea. The Department of Environment monitors more than 60 miles of beach in Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman, searching for turtle nests. Volunteers patrol the beaches four days a week for around six months during nesting season. 

Lucy Collyer, sea turtle conservation intern with the Department of Environment, said, “We’ve still got a small population, which is why we need to do everything we can to help as many as possible get from nest to sea. 

“The survival rate for hatchlings is around 1 in 1,000. They are prey for almost anything while they are babies, and once they get past that stage, there are issues with boats and fishing nets and things like that.” 

Cayman’s sea turtle population used to number in the millions, according to Ms. Blumenthal. 

Commercial harvesting decimated the population, and by the mid-1900s turtles were thought to be extinct in Cayman’s waters. The DoE began monitoring the beaches in 1999 in an effort to find and protect those that remained. 

“This monitoring showed that leatherback nesting was indeed locally extinct and is likely lost to us forever, but extremely small numbers of green, loggerhead, and hawksbill turtles persisted,” Ms. Blumenthal said. “Since that time, hawksbill nesting has continued to hover at the edge of extinction, but loggerhead and particularly green turtle nesting has recently begun to increase on all three islands.” 


Nearly 17,000 turtles hatched on Cayman beaches during the most recent nesting season. – PHOTO: LUCY COLLYER

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