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Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter celebrated its 50th anniversary with the return of the much-loved Pirates Week Turtle Release. The tradition of releasing turtles during the Pirates Week celebrations spans more than 30 years, and this year it was more popular than ever, and people flocked to the site of the release at Spotts Beach on Sunday 11 November to watch.
Everyone waited patiently as the turtles were unloaded from pickup trucks in big tubs and taken first to the Cabanas at the top of the beach, and then to the release site. Lots of parents, who had maybe taken part in the release as children, now brought their own children to see the 25 turtles being released. The turtles were each at least a year old, and are called “Head –Started” turtles because, being hatched and then growing to more than a foot long, in the safe environment of Cayman Turtle Centre, they effectively have a “head-start,” in life, and are far better able to fend for themselves. Some of the children (winners of the Facebook turtle-naming competition) came forward to help take the turtles down to the sea, while their parents made videos with their phones to send to grandma and grandad. Generation upon generation of Caymanians has grown up with the turtles.
Since the time, in 1503, when Christopher Columbus first named these islands Las Tortugas (“The Turtles) after the thousands of turtles he saw here, Turtles and Caymanians have shared these shores. Caymanians love and respect them, and they are truly part of our Cayman’s history. But overfishing made them become much scarcer, so that by the middle of the twentieth century they were in danger of becoming extinct. That was when things started to change for the better.
It was on 6 October 1968 that Mariculture Ltd, the name of Cayman Turtle Centre’s predecessor company, was established by a group of investors. It was a visionary idea – to preserve turtles by farming them – in much the same way as the North American Bison, which had been on the edge of extinction, was saved by farming it commercially, too. The idea was very simple but very clever: farmed animals never become extinct. By farming turtles in a sustainable, closed system, turtle meat could be sold at a price that would make taking turtles from the wild less attractive, and turtles could be released into the wild at intervals, too, in order to boost the natural population.
Since that time, things have started turning around, and with a combination strategy of releasing turtles which have been hatched within the facility, and providing an alternative source of turtle meat at a price which makes illegal poaching from the wild unattractive, there is evidence that the facility has made quite a positive impact. As Tim Adam, the Centre’s Managing Director explained just before the turtles were released:
“Evidence collected during a Darwin Initiative study conducted in 2014 through 2016 shows through DNA analysis a minimum of 50% of the nesting green sea turtles in Cayman have their origins at the Cayman Turtle Centre. In other words our dedicated turtle conservation team which, to date, have released more than 32,000 turtles into the wild have contributed to at least half of the nesting turtles that exist in Cayman’s waters today. And I should mention that with these 25 turtles being released today, the total number of turtles released for this year 2018 exceeds 1300, a combination of head-started turtles and hatchlings.”
Mr. Adam also went on to tell everyone how they could help conserve turtles in simple, practical ways:
“To love these beautiful animals is not enough. As a community of the island and citizens of this earth, we must all contribute to play a part in conservation of what we love. Things like turtle-friendly beach lighting,, keeping all plastics out of the oceans, and being absolutely vigilant to report to the authorities any turtle poaching activity can make a big difference. We hope you will fall in love with these turtles as we have, that you will each do your part to conserve the, and take away new memories that you can share in the years to come.”
One young man, Tobias was having a wonderful day. He had just released one of the turtles, and it was his birthday, too. “I’m nine years old today,” he said “I liked releasing the turtle. I know it wanted to go in the water so that it can have a free life,” he said.
Jennifer West said “I enjoyed it very much. This is actually my first turtle release and the reason I came out was it was an opportunity to be a part of one of the releases. I’d like to say thank-you to the Pirates Week committee for taking the initiative to make this part of the festivities. It is a great asset to what the island offers, and it was a huge turnout, too, which I did not expect.”