Clinton Whittaker stood on the bow of the catboat as it surged and plummeted on steep ocean swells. The main sail had been damaged in the foul weather and the three-man crew was manoeuvring the small vessel on just the jib.

Whittaker was following the orders of the captain – a man named Green – to scour the horizon for some sign of the reef’s breaking to the east.

He wasn’t happy about it.

“I said, Green, how the hell do you expect me to see the eastern reef breaking? You are going the wrong way,” he said, traces of frustration returning to his features as he recalled the tale.

The men were rangers, part of a large fleet of Caymanian turtlers scattered across a vast network of mangrove islands and sandbars off the coast of Nicaragua.

The catboat had left the relative security of Dead Man Bar, where two days earlier they had made rustic huts from banana and silver thatch leaves carried from Grand Cayman.

“We were lost, there was no two ways about it,” Whittaker recalled.

“I tried to tell the captain, but he was strongheaded – that’s what we used to call it. He wouldn’t listen.”

By the time this truth settled in, the weather had worsened significantly and they were out of sight of land. They would learn later that a Caymanian cargo ship, the Antaris, had been forced to ditch two cars in the ocean en route to Florida, in order to stay afloat. Another catboat carrying two Cayman rangers was lost at sea in the same storm.

Whittaker had better luck.

“We came across a red mangrove tree spring up on a shallow spot and we tied on to that till Thursday morning,” he said.

“We went on sailing, sailing – didn’t know where we were going.”

Late in the afternoon of the third day, they saw another boat and decided to follow it, playing a hunch that it was headed for land.

Tacking back and forth in its wake, they finally sighted the distinctive green mangrove islands of the Miskito Cays.

Whittaker was in his 20s at the time. He is 92 now, but tears still come to his eyes as he recalls the sight of three famous Cayman schooners, the Adam, the Goldfield and the Jemsons.

“They had all ran from the weather and were tied up there in the bight. We were so lucky.”

The men had a cup of coffee and passed the time with their fellow Caymanian turtlers as the last of the storm blew out.

When they returned to their camp, the sandbar had twisted 90 degrees in the storm, but their hut was still standing.

Las Tortugas

By the time Whittaker and his generation were ranging on the Central American coast in the 1950s, declining prey and increasing environmental regulation were taking their toll on an industry that had helped sustain Cayman for a century or more. The sea turtles of the Caribbean had provided sustenance for mariners for much longer. Since Christopher Columbus first sighted the islands in 1503 and christened them Las Tortugas, European sailors had used the islands as important provisioning grounds. Turtles were easy to catch and could be kept alive on deck for weeks at a time, providing a valuable source of food for roving seafarers.

“The tortoise’s flesh is good meat and is like unto beef both in tast and shew [sic],” noted Captain Walter Bigges in his account of legendary British explorer Sir Francis Drake’s voyage to the West Indies in 1589.

“In the islandes of Caimanes we killed a hundred in two nights.”

Such exploitation took its toll and by the time the first permanent settlers arrived in Grand Cayman in the early 18th century, the turtle fishery was already in decline. The first Caymanians were forced to forage for turtle off Cuba and later went as far afield as Central America.

20th century rangers

By the 20th century, a well-honed routine was established. Large schooners, like the Adam and the Goldfield, would carry crews of young men and several catboats to the Miskito Cays.

The rangers would spend seven or eight weeks living on small mangrove islands or sandbars. They would set nets overnight on the spots where t he turtles were known to sleep.

In the morning, they would venture out in their catboats to collect what prey had swum into their trap.

They kept the turtles in pens made from wooden poles, known as kraals. Periodically, the larger boats – many of them converted to engine power by this time – would come and collect the catch.

It was a rugged existence, but Whittaker remembers it fondly.

“It was lonely, but you had your hammock hanging up in the shade there where you could go up and sleep and, in the daytime, you know, you are fishing. It was all right. You had to enjoy that because that’s how you made your money.”

Sometimes the rangers would catch 50 or 60 turtle on a two-month voyage. Sometimes 200.

“It just depends if you were lucky,” Whittaker remembered.

Turtling in the blood

Captain Paul Hurlston, one of the most decorated Caymanian seamen of his generation, started his career on a turtling crew at age 14. At the time, the long, often-dangerous voyage to the Central American coast was the only option for young men to make a living.

“You wouldn’t believe this is the same Cayman,” he said.

“There was absolutely nothing to do, no work. Everyone at my age went to sea. We had no industry – anything you could make a shilling off, that’s what you did.”

For Hurlston, turtling was in the blood. His grandfather Charles Bush was known as one of the best turtle pilots in Cayman.

“He was the most disagreeable man but he was honest,” he said.

“If you made the voyage with him, you would receive what you made.”

That was not always the case. Some captains or boat owners would shortchange the crew on their share of the catch and disputes were common. Many of the boat owners also owned stores back in Cayman and the crew would get credit for provisions for themselves and their families.

“The difference between what you earn and what you owe, they give you in cash,” Hurlston said.

“They always used to mark up a little bit more.”

A few turtles were butchered for the local market, but most went to the US or to the UK via Jamaica.

Hurlston made just one voyage with the turtle fleet before he decided the merchant marine was a steadier prospect.

“I was paid $80 a month working on the banana boats, which was good money for Cayman at the time. Turtling, you just didn’t know if you were going to catch anything or not,” he said.

Whittaker made five or six trips to the Miskito Cays, but stayed involved with the turtling industry. He served as one of the butchers at a turtle-canning factory that operated on the site of what is now the Caribbean Utilities Company.

Later, as the industry declined, he joined the line of Caymanian seamen travelling to the southern US to work the cargo boats there.

Carrying on the tradition

Naul Bodden was a boy on Cayman Brac during the last days of the turtling industry. He remembers the welcome the famous Brac schooner the Jemsons would receive when it returned to the island after months at sea.

Families would put their requests in for 10 pounds, 15 pounds, whatever they could afford. When there were enough orders, they would butcher the turtle right there on the dock.

“We used to have a hell of a time fishing for sharks,” Bodden said.

“The whole barcadere would turn red and sharks would come in by the dozens – you could take a club and lick one.”

Bodden, one of the first accountants in Cayman and the founder and president of NCB Group, comes from a family of turtlers. His grandfather was lost at sea on a turtle expedition during the 1932 hurricane.

His father, who was 15 at the time, was out on a different boat during the same storm.

“Their ships passed and they waved to each other, but communication was bad. They didn’t know a hurricane was coming.”

Hunters

Even as turtling declined in the 1970s and beyond, a small local fishery was maintained. The Department of Environment operated a seasonal licensing system similar to what exists now for conch and lobster. A handful of older turtlers still officially have permission to hunt, though no turtle have been legally caught locally in recent years.

Bodden gave up his licence as regulations increased and the tradition began to wane. He recognises there can be no turning back, but feels a part of Cayman’s heritage has been lost as turtling has died out.

“I miss being able to go out,” he acknowledged.

He said he and his friends would scour the reefs for turtle in a small motorboat. They would track them, often for hours at a time, using snorkel and mask instead of rowing in a catboat like their forefathers.

“We would follow the turtle, swimming above him … if he stops and lies on the bottom, you drop the net down on him and he’s a goner.”

A lost tradition

For Caymanians, he believes, hunting turtle is part of the national identity.

Harvesting the animals is how generations of Caymanians survived in a time of subsistence living.

“It is a tradition which none of our kids will ever experience, and it is so exciting, like going through a forest and hunting a deer.

“My son is 22 and I will never be able to teach him to hunt turtle or to spear fish. Environmental laws are such that you can’t.”

He believes there is a case to be made for generational Caymanians to be allowed to hunt.

“It is very similar to the Eskimos or the Indians. You grow up with those traditions and, all of a sudden, everything changes and those traditions disappear.

“It is the way it is and I can accept not doing it any longer, but it is a lost tradition.”