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(HuffingtonPost.com) I've had a lifelong passion for animal encounters, so when I heard about Cayman Turtle Centre I shelved my jaded preconceptions and headed out as fast as possible.
The original Centre was created to breed Green Sea Turtles for their meat, a traditional Caymanian Dish. It continues that service today, supplying all turtle meat sold on the island. Turtle Centre has grown to much more than that however and the park also focuses on wildlife encounters and educating the public about these and other local creatures. Think of it as a home grown Sea World, but better since you can swim with the star attractions and they won't try to kill you.
Upon entering the park you are greeted by the The Green's Breeding Pond, where most of the park's breeder turtles reside, swimming in the sun and occasionally coming along the sandy beach to lay their eggs. If you make a counter clockwise loop from the entrance you can see the turtles grow up. We held yearling turtles, and I don't care how cynical you are, these little critters will melt your icy heart. After picking one up and watching it flap its fins in my hands, I thought I would turn into one of the many children around me, being yelled at by parents tired of spending hours at this first pool.
Leaving the turtle tanks we saw some of the other animal attractions. Smiley, the Saltwater Crocodile, was on hand as well as a large aviary with local Cayman Parrots, found only on Cayman. Budgie the Parrot also resides inside the aviary, and he's only pet in the park. Budgie will pick your cuticles so if you need a cheap pedicure be sure to stop by and pay him a visit.
To me the highlight of the park was the free swim Turtle Lagoon, one of the few places in the world you are guaranteed a swim with sea turtles. Along with all kinds of reef fish, the lagoon contains a few young turtles to play tag with. I have seen adult turtles in the wild but only at a distance and this encounter with young turtles was something else. You know the scene in Finding Nemo where Dory and Marlin wake up amongst the turtles? That was me in this lagoon, swimming around playing turtle tag. The little guys were flying around the lagoon and I could barely keep pace. The salt water lagoon is nestled next to Turtle Centre's Predator Reef--rest assured the giant barracuda is on the other side of a few inches of glass! In all it's a great place to beginner snorkel, a great relief for some of my companions who had their first snorkeling experiences in the two foot waves around the North Sound.
Sadly our time in the lagoon was called to an end; the turtles needed rest from the cute-stricken tourists swimming in their home. We headed over to the swimming pool next door to take a spin on the Turtle Twister waterslide, the closest we could get to swimming as fast as the yearlings and then headed home.
On the drive back I kept thinking about how far Cayman Turtle Centre has come. This was a place that had weathered some serious storms, from hurricanes to business upheavals, to get to where it is today. The organization is currently taking its knowledge of turtle breeding and applying them to critically endangered species such as the Kemp's Ridley, widely considered the most endangered sea turtle in the world. In addition to this turtle research, they sponsor an annual turtle release to help replenish the wild population of green sea turtles. The transformation from simple Centre to world class conservatory is exciting but not without its challenges. I am thrilled at the direction the Turtle Centre is taking and hope that its journey is similar to its charges, a slow and steady flight through an unending sea of possibility.