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The people of the Cayman Islands have a history tied to the turtle. In the 1600 and 1700's the Cayman Islands became a provisioning stop for vessels sailing the Caribbean because of an abundance of green sea turtles, which could be caught and kept alive on board as a source of fresh meat. Permanent settlements developed on the Cayman Islands in the seventeenth century and turtling became a means of income as well as providing a local source of food.
However, the turtles around the islands were depleted by the early 1800's and the turtling industry focused around the Miskito Cays off the coast of Nicaragua. The Cayman turtling fleet continued operating at a sustained level until the early 1900's. By this time turtle populations were dwindling and, in subsequent years, national and international regulations and alternative sources of income reduced the turtling industry to a negligible level. The appearance of the turtle on the Cayman Islands' flag, seal and currency reflects the close association the people have to the turtle.
Cayman Turtle Centre was established in 1968 as Mariculture Ltd. by a group of investors from the United States and Great Britain as a facility to raise the green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, for commercial purposes. The intention was to supply the market with a source of product that did not deplete the wild populations further. By releasing turtles and facilitating research, any harm created by removing turtles and eggs from the wild would be mitigated.
After much work was put into pioneering the requirements of domesticating this wild animal, regulations designed to protect the sea turtle prevented the sale of even the Centred turtle product in the U. S. and many other countries. With close to 100,000 turtles to feed and care for and unable to sell its products to continue a cash flow, Mariculture Ltd. consequently went bankrupt in 1975. Mariculture Ltd. was bought by a group from Germany and renamed Cayman Turtle Centre Ltd. Breeding Pond prior to Hurricane Michelle in November 2001.
The new owners intended to operate the centre more as a non-profit organization, funnelling any profits from the sale of products back into sea turtle conservation and protection projects, using the site as an international sea turtle research facility. However, export restrictions continued, and sufficient revenue could not be generated to maintain the approximately 100,000 turtles on hand. After 8 years the new company gave up. The number of turtles was reduced, and operating costs brought to the minimum with the intention of closing.
The Cayman Islands Government then purchased this mini centre in 1983 and has since operated it as a private company, Cayman Turtle Centre (1983) Ltd. The goal of this new company is to produce enough turtles to supply the needs of the local market and continue releasing turtles. The centre has also become the largest land-based tourist attraction on the island.
On 4th November 2001 the Centre was hit by the waves generated by Hurricane Michelle churning 90 miles away off to the South West of Grand Cayman. Although there was little wind, the waves inundated most of the facility near the sea, washing 600 lbs turtles out of their tanks as easily as it washed the 6 ounces hatchlings. Turtles were washing everywhere. People came from all around the Island as the news of the disaster spread, to help in the rescue. Many turtles were saved and many escaped unharmed and the huge yellow tagged adults from the breeding pond could be seen around the Island for months afterwards.
This was a severe setback as 75% of the breeders were lost. The turtle release program and the meat supply were reduced to build up the population again. A new breeding pond, further inland, was completed by the end of 2002 and the remaining adults and selected future breeders were moved to their new home in early 2003. They reproduced from that season on but not at levels needed to sustain the Centre at the past levels of meat supply and release.
Hurricane Michelle may have been the cloud's silver lining in that it was the catalyst to move the whole turtle operation further from the sea. While this was being planned, the idea of an expanded facility to include a nature park was conceived and so was born Boatswain's Beach. This 23-acre park features a reef lagoon in which guests can snorkel, a predator tank, a free flight aviary, a woodland nature trail and a zero entry freshwater rock pool, complete with waterfall provide guests with hours of entertainment.
On September 11th, 2004 we were hit by the worst hurricane in the recorded history of the Island, Hurricane Ivan and what little of the facility near the sea that had survived Michelle was just about eliminated. No turtles were lost this however time as there was ample warning of the storm's approach and the turtles near the sea were all moved to safer areas.
All wild turtles and eggs were obtained legally through official programs. Eggs and adult turtles were purchased from local legal collectors and fishermen and yearling turtles were returned for release. The last turtles for the breeding herd were obtained in 1975 and the last eggs collected in 1976.
The first nesting occurred in 1973 by adults obtained from the wild. In 1975, the first turtles raised from eggs obtained from the wild reproduced. The first second generation captive turtles were hatched in 1989.
Before Hurricane Michelle, the breeding herd of 355 green turtles consisted of 147 "parental" stock obtained as adults from the wild and turtles raised from eggs obtained from the wild. The remaining 208 adults were first generation (F1) turtles. These were kept in a 1,000,000-gallon pond with a beach for nesting.
The 90 breeders that were left after Hurricane Michelle were kept in holding tanks during 2002 and consequently there were no nesting that year. These along with some young turtles selected from stock, christened the new Breeding Pond in early 2003 and produced 900 hatchlings that season. Nesting continued at this lower level during the next 4 years.
Efforts are continuing to remove turtles which were put into the breeding pond at the approach of Hurricane Ivan. The goal is to establish a heard of approximately 400 females and 100 males from which the best breeders can be selected. As of January 2011, there are approximately 290 female turtles and 72 male turtles in the Breeding Pond and approximately 5000 turtles in total at the Centre.