Volunteers save turtle hatchlings from storm

Volunteer Jane Hardwick digs into an at-risk turtle nest. - Photo: Department of Environment

Hurricane Michael may have bypassed Grand Cayman, but it still posed a serious danger to local wildlife. A Department of Environment team responded to the crisis on Monday and Tuesday by going around the island and saving more than 500 turtle hatchlings from the high seas associated with the storm.

The DoE team, led by visiting scientist Evelyn Denton and assisted by local volunteers, checked dozens of known turtle nests that were believed to be close to hatching. Most of these nests were laid between a month-and-a-half and two months ago, and the baby turtles were at great risk without intervention.

The team located 485 hatchlings on Monday that were kept safe until they were ready for release, and they came back on Tuesday and found another 61 live hatchlings.

“Some we kept in buckets, a few were even kept in a volunteer’s bathroom sink,” Ms. Denton said. “We released about 150 on Monday night and will release the rest over the next few days.”

Turtle eggs can withstand waves washing over their nests, but if too many waves come, they run the risk of eroding the nest and washing the eggs out to sea. The turtles can also be deprived of oxygen due to heavy, wet sand collapsing on their eggs, and in those cases, many of them will not survive.

After hatching, the young turtles are vulnerable to high waves. It can take several days for them to dig themselves out of the sand, and if the waves keep coming, it can be hard for them to escape.

“The more than 500 hatchlings that were rescued Monday and Tuesday would have drowned if they had not been removed from the nests prior to the waves washing over the beach,” said Janice Blumenthal, a research officer for the DoE. “The nests checked on Monday and Tuesday represent a small percentage of the annual nest numbers for the three islands. However, volunteers’ efforts in saving 546 hatching turtles [that] otherwise would have drowned gives each one of those hatchlings a chance at survival.”

The busiest turtle nesting season is generally between May and November, but nesting turtles can begin as early as April and hatchlings can appear on beaches as late as January. The DoE advises residents and tourists not to disturb the nests or attempt to help the turtles emerge. If you see a nest in danger of being damaged, you can contact the 24-hour turtle hotline at 938-NEST (6378).

For further information on turtles or other protected species in the Cayman Islands, or to learn how to become a volunteer with DoE, you may also contact DoE Public Education and Outreach Officer Brent Fuller at 244-5984 or 922-5514 or via email at [email protected]