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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com or visit: http://www.caymanisland.ky 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 http://www.WeatherLabs.com 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 WWW.Lowestfare.com
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Turtle Farm Webcams: there are six Web cams strategically placed throughout the Turtle farm.
The release program for additional information e-mail email@example.com
To participate in a sea turtle conservation internship CIEE Volunteer Projects vvww.ciee.org
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 http://mbgnet.mobot.org/salt/animals/index.htm
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com , or through her Web page, at http://home.att.net/~travelwriter/ .