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Research & Conservation

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 farmed 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 farm 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 farm 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 farm has also become the largest land based attraction on the island.

On 4th November 2001 the Farm 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 was 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 Farm 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 fresh water 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 Farm.

 

The average Hatchery egg collection for the last two years was 27,500 eggs, and over 31,000 Yearlings have been Released so far up to today.

To reap the maximum benefits from these thousands of locally released turtles the Centre now tags turtles with a "living tag" which was developed by Professor John Hendrickson and Lupe Hendrickson of the University of Arizona. This tagging method involves the auto grafting of a small, white dot of belly shell onto the turtle's dark coloured back. This is done when the turtle is only a few days old. As the animal grows, the dot grows with it. This tagging method is tremendously significant as it is the only method whereby a tiny sea turtle hatching may be identified as a 300 pound adult more than 15 years later on a nesting beach. This tagging may allow scientists to discover whether or not sea turtles actually return to the beach from which they hatch to nest, a hypothesis which has never been proven. Information from these tagged turtles will help determine the benefits of "head-starting", a widely used conservation technique of releasing older turtles in the hopes of better insuring their survival in the wild. There is a scientific paper called “They came back” written by DoE and others that prove the Headstarting programme works.

Since the Centre has begun local turtle releases, the sightings of green sea turtles by divers and residents living along the coast have been common. To fully assess the re-establishment of a Cayman turtle population, the Centre, with the cooperation of the Cayman Islands Government, has initiated both aerial and ground level surveys of the beaches and waters surrounding the islands. The public has cooperated by providing information on turtle sightings and nestings. Because of observed dog and crab predation and increased public use of all beaches, reported nests are relocated to the Cayman Turtle Centre's hatchery for incubation. All hatchlings are then returned to the collection beach for release.

A tag-recapture program is ongoing which allows for the collection of data regarding survival and growth of the turtles released by the Cayman Turtle Centre. As well as the "living tag", yearling turtles are tagged with a titanium tag on their fore-flipper which identifies an individual animal. Using turtle nets, the turtles are recaptured, weighed, measured, and released immediately. The titanium tag also provides information that enables individuals finding these animals in areas away form the Cayman Islands to return capture information to the Centre. The majority of tag returns have come from Cuba, with returns also from Honduras, Venezuela, the United States, Panama, Belize, Nicaragua, and Mexico. Information thus far correlated suggests that the turtles adapt well to natural conditions when released as yearlings, and that their release site in the Cayman Islands dictates whether or not they migrate away from the Islands or stay in Cayman waters. Significantly, the release program of the Centre has demonstrated that "head-started" turtles do assimilate into a natural environment.

For additional information regarding the release program please email info@turtle.ky.