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Repopulating the Oceans with Endangered Reptiles


Belkis Kambach

The Grand Cayman Turtle Farm cultivates not only turtles but also Caymanian history.  It represents the island’s seafaring past and its vital link with the days when hardy settlers made their living from their only resource at hand -- the sea and its bounty.

Located in the Northwest portion of the Caribbean Sea, this British Crown Colony is made up of three tiny islands and as its name suggests, Grand Cayman is the largest island (22 miles long by 8 miles wide). The other islands, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, are sparsely populated and quiet, each with it’s own unique character.

Grand Cayman's beautiful Seven-Mile Beach, on the western side of Grand Cayman, is the best slice of beach in the Caribbean, with powdery-white sand in a picturesque crescent shape fringed by gin-clear water.  The underwater wilderness around the other islands, Cayman Brac’s majestic Bluff and Little Cayman’s legendary Bloody Bay wall, is also alluring. Several new resorts have opened recently, but these islands still retain their quiet atmosphere.


Arriving  into Grand Cayman on a cloudless day, you can barely make out the legendary coral walls from the plane.  The clarity is truly amazing and easy to see why this is one of the dive capitals of the world.  To the underwater fanatic, Grand Cayman is home to some of the world's best diving, and avid scuba divers never leave disappointed with the islands' rich underwater world.

Known for its unusual marine life and wall diving favored for the southern stingrays that abound; Valley of the Rays is home to large eagle rays; and Tarpo Alley is a long canyon where big schools of tarpon congregate. But it is the rigorous conservation efforts that have kept the Cayman Island's reefs and walls healthy and teeming with fish.

It was Columbus who first discovered this idyllic trio on his fourth Caribbean voyage in 1503, naming the trio "Las Tortugas" for its large turtle population. Future adventurers took full advantage of these reptiles, making a pit stop in the Caymans to load up on turtles to sustain themselves on return trips to Europe. In fact, there were so many green sea turtles swimming around at the turn of the 18th century that even buccaneers used the islands as a provision stop. The great reptiles also kept early settlers alive.

It was this aquatic reptile’s unfortunate ability to stay alive on its back for months that made it a popular seafood dinner choice for these sailors already sick of salted and dehydrated rations. Turtle soup laced with sherry, rum or Madeira became a delicacy in the Old World. But with all this gastro-turtle activity, no wonder near extinction was the  inevitable future of this reptile.

Today Las Tortugas are still one of Grand Cayman's main tourist attractions and the reason why many flock to these Islands.  Even the island's national symbol is “Sir Turtle,” and he is likely to appear on every souvenir, bank note, even on the national flag and airline. Thank goodness they chose the stingrays to be the symbol of their local beer.

Our mission here was to observe Sea Turtles, and always having been fascinated with these marine reptiles during childhood. I owned eight, all of which I named all Norman as it was then difficult for me to identify their sex.  Years have passed, and I still have a hard time identifying a sir turtle or madam.

These beauties weighing hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds, floating in the surf, feeding, swimming, waiting for nightfall, intrigues me. I’ve chased them up and down the coast of Central America and the Caribbean, observing them make their way to the beaches each year, dragging themselves ashore, digging a hole and laying their eggs.  Then I leave them in the custody of the sand, trusting that a few of their many offspring will make it to the sea and hoping  they will not succumb to any number of eager predators, including humans.

For me, the years spent observing this phenomenon that goes back to the time of the dinosaurs have been a joy. Although these critters have managed to outlive their doomed friends the dinsosaurs, it looked at times in the middle of the 20th century like this species was coming to the end of the line.

Located on the west end of the island under a searing sun and the bluest of Caribbean skies is a truly unique attraction, beckoning over 300,000 visitors. The Cayman Turtle Farm, the only commercial farm of its kind in the world, breeds some 18,000 turtles in captivity each year. About per cent are eventually tagged and released into the sea. 

The farm raises turtles for ecological and commercial purposes, and it has done an exemplary job of repopulating the oceans with these endangered reptiles. As a visitor to the turtle farm, you will actually see a working farm which is both educational and entertaining. visitors can leisurely walk around observing the beautiful green sea turtles.

Beyond the pens, huge adult turtles up to 50 years of age swim in a deep breeding pond where they bask, dive and sunbathe. On one side, an artificial man-made beach was created where females, drag themselves out of the water at night to dig a hole and lay eggs in the sand, just as they would in the wild. Only this time many of their offspring do live.  The cream-colored, ping-pong ball sized eggs are then transferred to the hatchery, where they incubate for sixty days. Newly hatched turtles crawl to the top of the nest, and the cycle once again begins.

Turtle abundance can be seen today at the farm, and to many visitors, the Cayman Turtle Farm is a facility that affords them the opportunity to hold, photograph and come face to face with thousands of green sea turtles.  Where else can you study green sea turtles in every stage of development, from small incubating eggs to the tiniest hatchlings with their shell a beautiful burnished copper. By their first year they weigh six pounds but grow to become half-ton massive adults. 

The farm itself consists of a series of shallow concrete pens fed by a continuous flow of 432,038,700 gallons of sea water. The first one holds hundreds of newly-hatched black-shelled critters, swimming madly in all directions. So small one would fit easily in a pocket. By this time you’ll wish it’s not too late to change your lunch plans?

To Caymanians, the farm represents a great deal, being not only the most popular land-based tourist attraction on Grand Cayman after Stingray City but also for being largely responsible for having boosted the dwindling turtle populations in the open seas surrounding the island trio.

Tourism, however, was never intended to be the sole reason for the farm’s existence. It was established back in 1968 as a private venture by entrepreneurs who wanted to market turtle products worldwide. The U.S. ban of all turtle products, including goods in transit through U.S. ports in 1978, prompted the concern for the turtle as an endangered species. The farm then lost 80 per cent of its market. A shift in emphasis resulted, and today the farm concentrates instead on research and breeding programs.

Two decades later the farm has become a government owned-operation, and today the only commercial green sea turtle farm in the world. It serves three purposes, including functioning as a commercial operation raising captive bred green sea turtles, of which a certain number are used for food consumption in the Cayman Islands, preserving the island’s cultural tradition. They also continue research on sea turtles, and as a scientific-based attraction they educate visitors and residents on educational and scientific facts about the farm inhabitants.  

The farm, committed to conservation of marine turtles, has initiated an annual turtle release program where excess hatchlings are designated for a tagging and release program. In the past decade, the farm has released young green sea turtles into the sea each year in an attempt to replenish the wild population.  Over 30,000 hatchlings and yearlings have been released into the waters surrounding the Seven Mile Beach into the Caribbean Sea off Cayman's coastline. Information from these tagged turtles is helping to hone conservation techniques.

The most recent release, The 1999 Annual Turtle Release, was a great success. This year it will take place on October 26 and be broadcast live on the Internet.  Anyone interested may sponsor a release turtle for a $5.00 fee and will receive a certificate confirming their sponsorship. This program started back in 1980 in an attempt to repopulate the region's waters.

Virtually nothing was known about the green sea turtle when the farm was established, but its researchers now supply the international scientific community with data, as the farm is at the forefront of efforts to save the Kemp's ridley turtle from extinction. It also supports graduate research, as four years ago it produced the first second-generation of green sea turtle hatchlings ever to be born in captivity.

To reap the maximum benefits from these thousands of locally released turtles, the farm now tags turtles with a "living tag." This tagging method involves the auto grafting of a small, white dot of belly shell onto the turtle's dark colored back. This is done when the turtle is only a few days old. As the animal grows, the dot grows with it. This method, developed by an American professor, is tremendously significant as it is the only method whereby a tiny sea turtle hatchling 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.

This ongoing tag-recapture program allows collection of data regarding survival and growth of the turtles released by the CTF. As well as the "living tag," yearling turtles are given 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 farm.

The majority of tag returns have come from Cuba, Honduras, Venezuela, the U.S., Panama, Belize, Nicaragua and Mexico. Information 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 farm has demonstrated that "head-started" turtles do assimilate into a natural environment.

With so much turtle talk you would think the turtles are the main attraction here, but they're hardly the only ones. In addition to the turtles, visitors can enjoy the indigenous fauna and flora, including the Cayman green parrot, once an island inhabitant; endemic Hickatees (fresh water turtles); non-indigenous blue and gold macaws; ground iguanas; the agouti or Cayman rabbit, prowling caimans or the North American crocodile, from which the islands received the name "Caiman" from early Spanish explorers.

By lunch time I started fearing for the worse, and what a relief it was to see salads on the menu. I’d feared that we'd be served a chunk of a flipper or some other recognizable bit. However, turtle is also on the menu. My husband was served flat pieces of gray meat pounded thin and marinated, quite similar to a veal scaloppini. Rob told me the flavor was very mild, like veal or pork, yet rich and sweet at the same time. “What is it?” I asked  "It's turtle steak," he whispered back.

There is a snack bar where you can sample Cayman turtle soup, turtle burgers served with jerk or mango salsa, sandwiches and other light meals. To our surprise turtle meat is served in most restaurants in the Cayman Islands; however all turtles come from the Turtle Farm. 

I was not impressed when my husband revealed he was eating turtle, these critter’s I adore. He said nonetheless his treat didn't taste fishy. And yes, Rob’s first taste of turtle was a treat, and  it turned out to be a delicious experience for him. Another national dish is the golden conch fritter, a specialty of other islands nearby.

Seventy-five per cent of the turtles are sold as meat to local restaurants and supermarkets.  The farm's captive breeding colony now produces an average of 45,000 eggs per year, and only about 8,000 hatchlings are needed each year to satisfy their  production goals. 

One reason why turtles are made available to the community in limited quantities is that turtle stew is the traditional national dish and therefore an important part of the heritage of this country.  People here have cultivated a taste for turtle, and they're going to eat them anyway. If the farm can meet the demand for turtle meat, there's less pressure on the wild ones. Today, catching wild turtles here requires a special permit.

Turtles, on the other hand, are fed (can you believe?) 92,480 pounds of Purina Turtle Chow, a special mixture of nutrients developed especially for the farm. 

After seeing turtles served in so many local restaurants we started doubting the fate for the Great Ones. But since our return we have good news to share: the farm has continued its local turtle release program and sightings of green sea turtles by divers, snorkelers and local residents along the Cayman coast have been common. 


We believe this farm will have succeeded in all their efforts when sightings of all seven living species of sea turtles are so common that divers and snorkelers in Caribbean beaches will no longer consider it special to see  turtles in the wild. By then  the resurgence of the green sea turtle will be one of those success stories of the environmental movement.

For us, just having seen those heartbreakingly cute hatchlings and holding them at the most vulnerable time in their lives was impressive. It amazes me how for thousands of years these resilient marine reptiles have been carrying out the same process over and over again, the most basic of all rituals in the animal kingdom.  We  felt lucky to have touched them and witnessed part of this magic.

I gazed out at the sea and reflected on all the great snorkeling and diving, the unforgettable stingrays and incredible sugary-white beaches, but our favorite Cayman souvenir we are taking with us is the sight of giant green turtles swimming gracefully through turquoise blue Caribbean waters. 


Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas mydas) scientists currently recognize eight living species of sea turtles grouped into six genera. Sea Turtle Species of the World  Scientists recognize seven living species and one sub-species of sea turtles, which are grouped into six genera.Green Sea Turtle , Hawksbill Sea Turtle, Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle, Olive Ridley Sea Turtle, Flatback Sea Turtle, Leatherback Sea Turtle, The Australian flatback

Sea turtles have navigated the world's oceans for over 100 million years. Today, all sea turtle species are in danger of extinction. These are large, air-breathing reptiles whos shells consist of an upper part (carapace)  and a lower section (plastron). Hard scales (or scutes) cover all but the leatherback, and the number and arrangement of these scutes can be used to determine the species.  Most reptiles lay eggs. Sea turtles fall into one of two families. Family Cheloniidae includes sea turtles which have shells covered with scutes. Family Dermochelyidae includes only one modern species of sea turtle, the leatherback turtle. Rather than a shell covered with scutes, leatherbacks have leathery skin.

Heavy exploitation by humans and the destruction and loss of nesting pose a serious problem. Listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Their populations are difficult to determine because of our lack of knowledge about their life cycles.

This thoroughly aquatic turtle is the largest of the Cheloniidae family or hard-shelled sea turtles, with adults reaching three feet in carapace length and 300 pounds in mass. (The largest green turtle ever found was 5 feet in length and 871 pounds). They rarely come to land except to bask, sleep and lay eggs.

Their habitat: worldwide in seas where temperature does not fall below 68 degrees F,  consisting of coasts, islands and open sea as green sea turtles like the warm waters of tropical and subtropical areas.  Diet: they are primarily herbivorous animals and have serrated jaw surfaces, well suited to feeding on sea grasses and seaweed; some crustaceans and jellyfish. The best feeding grounds are where there are vast underwater pastures of plants. 

Reproduction: their estimate age of sexual maturity ranges anywhere from 20 to 50 years. They travel great distances to the beach of their birth to mate and lay eggs. Males have slightly longer, narrower carapaces than females and enlarged curved claws on the front flippers for gripping the female when mating.   Only females come ashore to nest; males rarely return to land after crawling into the sea as hatchlings. (natal beach). Most females nest at least twice during each mating season; some may nest up to ten times in a season.

Courtship & Mating for most sea turtles is believed to occur during a limited “receptive” period prior to the female's first nesting emergence. Afterwards, only females come ashore to nest; males almost never return to land once they leave the sand of their natal beach. During mating season, males may court a female by nuzzling her head or by gently biting the back of her neck and rear flippers. If the female does not flee, the male attaches himself to the back of the female's shell by gripping her top shell with claws in his front flippers.

He then folds his long tail under her shell to copulate. Females observed on the nesting beach after recently mating often have scratched shells and may be bleeding from where the males' were hooked to their shells. Copulation can take place either on the surface or under water. Sometimes several males will compete for females and may even fight each other. Observers of sea turtle mating have reported very aggressive behavior by both the males and females. Females may mate with several males just prior to nesting season and store the sperm for several months. When she finally lays her eggs, they will have been fertilized by a variety of males.

Nesting: nesting season runs from June through October. Female turtles emerge at night to deposit eggs, the process taking an average of two hours. A few cautious flipper strokes bring her onto the beach, where she pauses and she scans the shore for predators, then starts a hole. With her fore flippers she sweeps away to excavate a hole approximately three feet deep in the sand to create a hollow to lie in and turns her back to it. Judging the depth by using her back flipper, she simply digs until she can't feel any more sand immediately beneath her tail.

She then deposits her eggs into the hole, entering in a trance-like state in which any presence will not disturb her. Eggs drop, each round and flexible about the size of a ping-pong ball. An average of three to five egg clutches (with an average of 115 eggs per clutch) with about 12 days between each nesting that incubate for about 60 days.  She then covers the area with sand, camouflaging the nest before crawling seaward. It’s uncommon for females to produce clutches in successive years. The hatching success of undisturbed nests is usually high, as in some beaches, predators destroy a high percentage of nests.

Done laying, she pauses at the waterline, then pushes herself into the waves. Paddling out through the white surf, she disappears into the black water. How the female selects a site is still a mystery, and it is not uncommon for turtles to come ashore, look around and go right back out to sea. Maybe they see a light that frightens them, or there are too many people too close. But once she does decide to dig, it is practically unheard of for her to stop. 

Hatchlings: It is during the humid nights from spring to autumn that hatchlings break through their shell and begin "swimming" out of the sand nest, somehow timing their escape so that they emerge in darkness. The young turtles hatch and dig their way through the sand to the surface. Having oriented themselves, they rush for the sea, past a horde of eager predators. Mortality here is high, and even those that do reach the sea will have to face yet more predators. 

The green sea turtles remain a yellowish white throughout life, but the carapace changes color from black to various shades of gray, green, brown and black, forming swirls and irregular patterns on their shells.

Where to best view Green Sea turtles: they are found in all tropical waters, including those near Central America, the Bahamas, and the U.S. Their largest nesting site in the Western Hemisphere is the black beach of Tortuguero, Costa Rica  (meaning "turtle hunter" in Spanish), named after locals who made their living killing turtles.  In the past these beaches were littered with white bones and bleached shells left behind by scores of these hunters who came to satisfy the demand for turtle meat, eggs, skin, and cartilage for soup).  Today teams of volunteers (roam the sands each night to measure and tag the turtles. Eco-Tourism boom has made the turtles more valuable alive than dead.

There also tends to be a limited number of important nesting sites, to which hundreds of turtles go,  in the U.S. they can be found from: Texas to Massachusetts, in Florida in the Indian River Lagoon, Florida Keys, Florida Bay, Homosassa, Crystal River and Cedar Key, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico.  Major green nesting colonies are located on Ascension Island, Aves Island, Costa Rica, Suriname, Miskito Cays and Nicaragua.  

Humans have long fascinated people and have figured prominently in the mythology and folklore of many cultures. In the Miskito Cays off the eastern coast of Nicaragua, the story of a kind “Turtle Mother,” still lingers. Unfortunately, the spiritual significance of sea turtles has not saved them from being exploited for both food and for profit. Millions of sea turtles once roamed the earth’s oceans, but now only a fraction remain. 


Getting There and Getting Around:  The following information will help you plan  your trip and enjoy your visit especially if you are  visiting  for the first time.  Contact the Department of Tourism 6100 Blue Lagoon Dr. Miami FLA 33126 Tel: (800)327-8777 / Fax(305)267-2930 or visit: they can  provide you with  brochures and information kits. Also be sure to request your free copy of: The Caribbean Vacation Planner (800)356-9999

Weather: for a 24-hour weather forecasts weather Labs publishes a wide assortment of weather content for nearly 2,000 cities globally or you can call the Cayman Islands National Meteorological Service in George Town, for a current weather report at (345) 945-5773. The island enjoys "perpetual summer," lying in the heart of the Caribbean and tempered by cooling trade winds.

Entry Requirements: US and Canadian citizens entering the Cayman Islands for three months or less need only  proof of citizenship, valid passport and a return or ongoing ticket. There is a 12.00$ departure tax. 

Flying there: Grand Cayman is a little more than an hour from Miami by jet. Island Air, a subsidiary of Cayman Airways, provides service from Grand Cayman to Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Cayman Airways (800) 422-9626, American Airlines (800)433-7300, Us Airways (800)622-1015, all offer service  to Owen Roberts International Airport on Grand Cayman from the US. We booked our flight with  (888)777-6551.

Transportation: taxis are available  and offer a fixed rate per vehicle or per person to all points on Grand Cayman. Hotel vans cannot provide courtesy arrival pickup at the airport.  In addition, small "buses" which are actually privately owned and operated 9- 20 passenger minibuses and vans, offer passenger service along main roads in and out of George Town.

Accommodations: the island is dotted with world-class resorts  from low-rise condominiums to full service resorts, as well as restaurant. The town offers accommodations to suit every need, from modern resorts to intimate guest houses.  Standard room prices vary from about $65 to $270 for double occupancy in the summer season.

Snorkeling in the Cayman Islands Sunbathing and water sports are enjoyable in the Cayman Islands year-round. Air temperatures are generally in the 80s, although they can drop into the low 70s during the winter. You might not want to forget your sunscreen. The water temperature at Sting Ray City ranges between 78 and 82 degrees in the winter months and from 82 - 86 degrees in the summer.

What to bring: to be solar safe sun worshipers; keep a shirt on might not want to forget your sunscreen. Like most island destinations, sun protector is important and expensive.

The Cayman Turtle Farm in West Bay is open to visitors from 8.30 am to 5 PM, seven days a week. Admission is $5 for adults; $2.50 for children aged six to 12; children under six, accompanied by adults, enter free. Cruise ship passengers enjoy an additional discount on the admission price tours are self-guided, in addition to tours of the Farm, there is a gift shop offering Grand Cayman's best selection of turtle souvenirs and T-shirts, as well as educational toys and books. P.O. Box 645 GT. Grand Cayman, BWI Tel: (345) 949-3894 / Fax:(345) 949-1387  E-mail:

Turtle Farm Webcams: there are six Web cams strategically placed throughout the Turtle farm.

The release program for additional information e-mail

To participate in a sea turtle conservation internship CIEE Volunteer Projects

TOURS: Grand Cayman Highlights And Turtle Farm, 2 hours, $26.00 Adult / $21.00 Child Stingray City Snorkeling , 3 hours, $31.00

Shopping: most of the shops on Grand Cayman are located in the capital, George Town, or near Seven Mile Beach, and offer a good selection of duty-free goods. Interesting items for sale include black coral jewelry and hand-crafted coral products.

Further reading: Dr. Carr's “The Windward Road” University of Florida Press brought the world's attention to the plight of the turtle.

Photographing wildlife the key to getting the most out of wildlife viewing and photos is to treat it as an opportunity to observe behavior, rather than as a list to be checked off.  Wildlife viewing and photos are often a matter of luck, the more effort you spend the better it gets.

The Cayman Island National Museum. Exhibits history of the islands, emphasizing the seafaring heritage. Displays cover Cayman Islands' fascinating plant, animal, and geological life.

How you can help turtles: there are many things we can do to help turtles survive. First, we must remember that we share the oceans and the beaches with many other species. Second, Turn your personal conviction about protecting sea turtles and marine and coastal ecosystems into direct action. Join and support the Sea Turtle.  Become informed about the things that are killing sea turtles or destroying their habitat.

The Sea Turtle Survival League. 800-678-7853

Adopt-A-Turtle, the kit includes an adoption certificate with your name, the turtle's name, a color photo and the turtle's background information

More Caymanian information and related links can be found at:

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Belkis Kambach is the travel editor for Finland-USA in Helsinki, Greenline and a frequent contributor to Toronto’s Globe & the Mail and Epicurean. Married to a Dutch she often writes about the Netherlands Antilles. She can be reached at , or through her Web page, at .

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