The 2020 turtle-nesting season came to a close with a record 557 confirmed nests on Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac combined, the Department of Environment reported Tuesday.
The DoE said the high number of nests was aided by the COVID-19 lockdown early in the year which left beaches deserted for long periods of time, giving turtles the opportunity to lay their eggs unhindered.
“The season started in an unusual way, with the Cayman Islands in lockdown and beaches closed,” the DoE said in its report. “Although this presented a number of challenges for the monitoring team, it meant that nesting turtles had little to no disturbances on the beaches and this positive impact was reflected by nesting occurring in new locations.”
The 2020 lockdown helped boost numbers towards the end of the season, but the DoE said a number of tropical storms and passing hurricanes threatened nests.
“The DoE’s Turtle Team were kept very busy assessing nest safety, and where necessary, relocating nests to safer locations. Despite the team’s best efforts, high seas caused more than 30 nests to become inundated with varying impacts to the hatch, and 10 nests were completely washed away due to unpredictable and significant beach erosion during the storm season,” it said.
However, the DoE was able to relocate 53 nests to protect them from storm surges on Grand Cayman and eight were relocated on Cayman Brac.
By the numbers
During the 2019 turtle-nesting season, the longest one ever recorded, 675 nests were found across all three islands.
This total marked the second highest number of turtle nests found in a year since the DoE began monitoring nests in 1998. In 2017, 689 nests were recorded.
Last year on Grand Cayman, the department recorded 506 confirmed turtle nests – 345 green, 156 loggerhead and five hawksbill.
“For the endangered green turtles, it was the most nests recorded in a season since monitoring began. Although the increasing number of nests does correlate to an increase in the number of nesting turtles, each female can lay up to nine nests in a season and therefore the size of the nesting population is still very small,” the DoE added.
On Cayman Brac, the DoE confirmed 41 loggerhead, eight green and two hawksbill nests.
The Brac’s turtle season, nesting and hatching, ran for nine months and 19 days, based on the hatch date estimated for the final nest, with 5,688 eggs and 3,604 hatched egg shells counted.
The DoE said it was unable to confirm the total number of nests from Little Cayman for the 2020 season due to pandemic-related staff capacity restrictions.
However, Cayman Brac had the distinct honour of recording the latest nests on record for the three islands, as a hawksbill nest was discovered on Christmas Eve.
The DoE said poaching remains an ongoing threat to the adult female turtles, especially when they are attempting to nest. They are killed for illegal sale.
“DoE’s conservation officers remained vigilant throughout the season and undertook several turtle rescues and intercepted a poaching attempt thereby saving the turtle,” it added in its report.
Grand Cayman’s turtle season length, which includes nesting and hatching, was clocked at seven months and 24 days, during which time the DoE counted a total of 56,290 eggs and 43,803 hatched egg shells.
The DoE said it was “extremely grateful for the support of the more than 40 regular volunteers who supported the programme by walking beaches to report tracks, assisting with data collection, and helping DoE staff to protect nests and conserve our sea turtles”.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which lists endangered species, includes three turtles found in Cayman – loggerheads which are listed as vulnerable; green, which are endangered; and hawksbill, critically endangered – the DoE said.
“Historical records indicate that leatherback turtles were once present in the Cayman Islands, however, since monitoring began in 1998, no leatherback nests have been recorded and they are now considered locally extinct. Given the precarious status of our sea turtle population, Cayman’s efforts must continue to preserve these sea turtles for our future generations,” the department added.
Once nests are identified by the DoE’s Turtle Monitoring Team, it said, the location is measured, and the nest assessed for natural threats, such as distance from the water line, and human threats, such as property lighting which could misdirect hatchlings away from the sea when they emerge.
“The nest is monitored for threats such as bonfires and heavy equipment on beaches, and then excavated post-hatch to assess the health and success of the hatch,” it said.