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It is said that few species that were around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth still exist today.
We had the privilege of holding, admiring and learning plenty about one such species, green sea turtles, during a vacation stop near George Town, Cayman Islands.
The visit to The Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter, which was established in 1968, was educational and entertaining while relaxing and rewarding, as we came face to face with some of nature's slow-moving, but powerful, reptiles.
Sea turtles are one of the Earth's most ancient creatures. Some species found today have been around for 120 million years, which is longer than the dinosaurs, according to Defenders of Wildlife website.
As we watched some of the larger turtles swim, it was obvious they would rarely come up for air. These turtles can hold its breath for such a long time. One swimming actively may only come up for air every 15 minutes, we learned. A sleeping turtle can hold its breath for up to 12 hours.
The turtle Centre is reportedly primarily a conservation-oriented organization. Its existence has improved the chances of seeing a turtle in the wild on the islands today.
Some turtles we visited on the Centre were as young as a month or two old, and would fit easily in the palm of our hands. Then those somewhat older sea turtles required a two-handed hold. We also watched others that were much larger, with at least one at the park that weighed in at more than 550 pounds.
Larger, stronger and more powerful animals could be viewed, but were off limits to the public for safety reasons.
The Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter is located in West Bay, Cayman Islands, and is labeled one of the largest land-based tourist attractions, bringing in more than 200,000 visitors each year. But, even more than the turtles of all ages and sizes, the Centre offered a dry, safe view of brown reef sharks, barracuda and other similar predators; also a salt-water crocodile; an aviary with plenty of exotic birds; a lagoon for swimming and snorkeling; a turtle hatchery; and a nature trail.
It offered an education center, an outdoor bar and grill, and a gift shop.
Guests are encouraged to interact with the turtles -picking them up, swimming with them and having photos taken with them.
The guides at the Centre strive to educate visitors about the green sea turtles. We learned that telling the difference between males and females is in the length of their tails, but not until they are about 9 years old can the gender be determined. The males have a longer tail.
Female turtles can lay 80 to 120 eggs at a time in a single nest, which is a hole they dig deep into the sand on the beach. The turtle eggs hatch in about 50 to 60 days. At the Centre, females start laying fertile eggs at about 10 years old.
The Cayman Turtle Centre is the only organization of its kind in the world, said the managing director.
According to locals, turtles are an essential part in the history of the Cayman Islands, and a turtle is featured on top of the official coat of arms of the islands.
"When Christopher Columbus discovered the islands in 1503, he named them ‘Las Tortugas' because of the abundance of turtles in the sea waters around the islands, subsequently providing fresh meat for the sailing ships passing through these waters," said Tim Adam, managing director of The Cayman Turtle Centre.
According to the website, the Centre has 7,000 turtles residing there. It has released 31,018 turtles back into the wild, to date.
Turtle dishes remain Cayman Island delicacies, traditionally prepared as turtle stew or turtle soup, he said.
Turtle farming was started there with the objective of "conservation through commercialization of the species," and continues with that in mind, he said.
By making turtle meat available at the local market, it eliminates or at least greatly reduces the incentive to poach turtles - collect them illegally - from the wild in the waters around these islands, Adam said.
The park is also home to a loggerhead turtle and a few of the most endangered sea turtles, called Kemp's Ridley turtles. The Cayman Turtle Centre was the first institution to successfully breed them in captivity.
It is also home to hundreds of Caribbean reef fish, nurse sharks, dozens of Cayman indigenous and Caribbean birds of various species, and iguanas, Adam said.
A stroll through the Caribbean Aviary allowed us to meet local and exotic Caribbean birds, such as the Cayman parrot, the national bird and the colorful scarlet ibis.
"The Centre is now well into the second generation of green sea turtles bred, hatched and raised in captivity, and after its initial collections of eggs and breeders, the Centre has taken no more turtles from the wild since the mid-1970s," he said.
In addition, the Cayman Turtle Centre provides a unique resource for research on sea turtles, with some 100 scientific papers having been published or presented, expanding the body of knowledge about these species.
"Research teams from places as diverse as China and Dubai have arranged to visit to learn more about turtle conservation and the research programs in efforts to replicate them in their countries," Adam said.
The Centre developed a theme park-style in 2007, but new features are added periodically. Just recently, a 105-foot-long waterslide was opened.