Turtle patrol helps hatchlings beat the odds

Sometimes nature needs a little helping hand.

From fishing hatchlings out of a condo pool at 2:30 a.m. to hatching eggs from storm-damaged nests in a bucket in her bathtub, Lucy Collyer is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for Cayman’s nesting turtle population.

As the lead intern on the Department of Environment’s turtle monitoring program, Ms. Collyer helps manage a massive volunteer effort to find and protect every nest on all three islands.

A record 688 nests were recorded this year, producing an estimated 50,000 hatchlings.

The range of dangers the baby turtles face are so diverse that only 50 are expected to survive to adulthood.

The turtle monitoring program seeks to improve those precarious odds and help ensure the future of the islands’ turtle populations.

For Ms. Collyer, that means organizing volunteer patrols, thwarting poachers and fielding calls from police, condo managers and conservation officers at all times of the night.

The Department of Environment’s Lucy Collyer holds a turtle hatchling from the first nest of 2017.

One day in August, she was called at 6:30 a.m. to assist a turtle found crawling helplessly around West Bay Cemetery. The turtle had dug its nest close to the fence separating the beach from the graveyard and inadvertently re-emerged on the other side.

As soon as she dealt with that emergency, the phone was buzzing again. This time, conservation officers had found a turtle laid out on its back in a shed in East End, already impaled with hooks and destined for the butcher’s knife.

“The great thing was that we were able to get both those turtles back into the ocean and both nested again later in the season,” said Ms. Collyer.

Other nesting turtles were not so lucky. Poaching remains a menace on certain beaches and Department of Environment enforcement officers recorded at least five incidents this year.

Nature brings its own threats.

The storm surge from Hurricane Irma inundated at least four nests, which had to be excavated by volunteers.

“At one point, we had three nests in our bathtub,” says Ms. Collyer, who shares a home – turtle headquarters – with Joe Roche Chaloner and Alejandro Prat Varela, the two other main Department of Environment interns on the project.

Using buckets filled with sand to replicate the conditions of a nest, they monitored them till they were ready to hatch.

“We ended up hatching 500 turtles at home,” she said.

Still the biggest concern for hatchlings is beachfront lighting.

According to Janice Blumenthal, the Department of Environment’s research officer leading the project, there were 45 “misorientations” – incidents where hatchlings were confused by artificial lighting and crawled toward developments, instead of toward the ocean.

On one of those occasions, Ms. Collyer found herself summoned to a condo development on Seven Mile Beach in the middle of the night.

“There was a whole nest of hatchlings in the swimming pool. It took forever to scoop them out,” she said.

Once they had rounded up the stragglers, the volunteers were able to release them into the ocean to fight another day.

Underpinning the Department of Environment’s enforcement and research activity is a GPS map of all past and active nests.

Scores of volunteers walk designated stretches of beach each morning, reporting any nests they find. The turtle team then goes out to the nest site, records the location using a purpose-built smartphone app, and returns 45 days later to monitor the nest as the eggs get close to hatching.

This level of support is necessary, according to Ms. Blumenthal, because of the range of threats to nesting turtles and their hatchlings.

Numbers have been steadily increasing since the DoE first began monitoring in Grand Cayman in 1998, when just 30 nests were recorded.

This year’s total eclipses the previous record year by more than 200 nests.

“The 688 nests this year produced over 50,000 baby turtles, which is an incredible opportunity to secure the future of our nesting population. However, many baby turtles were killed before they ever reached the sea [because of] artificial lights on our beaches,” said Ms. Blumenthal.

“The turtles nesting this year were born 20 and 30 years ago when conditions on our beaches were very different,” she said. “In effect, by looking at nesting numbers, we are looking back at how conditions were in the past. If the turtles born this year do not survive, due to artificial lighting on our beaches, we will not see a decline in nesting numbers until it is too late to do something about it.”

She said lighting was the key issue impacting the survival of hatchlings, which have an inborn tendency to move in the brightest direction, which historically would have been the night sky reflected on the ocean.

The Department of Environment is working with beachfront property owners to introduce “turtle-friendly lighting” on all nesting beaches.

Ms. Blumenthal cautions that despite the positive nesting figures, the islands’ turtle nesting population still needs protection.

“While the nesting increase is encouraging,” she said, “it is important to remember that each turtle lays more than one nest in a season, and these numbers of nests are for all three species, on all three islands, combined.”

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