Turtle nesting season began last month and already volunteers who monitor the nests are reporting record numbers for May.
Janice Blumenthal of the Department of Environment said, so far, volunteers who walk the beaches each day to keep track of the nests report that they have found 18 nests.
“That’s a record for most nests in May,” Ms Blumenthal said, adding that all the nests found were loggerhead nests. Green sea turtles, which also nest on local beaches, usually begin nesting later in the year.
May’s record number continued a trend of an increasing number of turtles returning to nest in Cayman.
Last year saw record figures for the entire nesting season when 244 nests were found, including 174 green sea turtle nests, 67 loggerhead nests and three hawksbill nests.
In a letter to volunteers, the director of the Department of Environment, Gina Ebanks-Petrie, said they had monitored more than 20 miles of coastline, walking more than 800 miles between the months of May and December when turtles nest and eggs hatch.
“This [was] a record year: the most nests we’ve had since monitoring began in 1998. The previous record was 155 nests.
“Our comprehensive monitoring method has not changed so we are confident that this represents a true increase,” she said.
The Department of Environment calculated that, since turtles typically nest three to six times a years, between 30 and 60 green sea turtles, 10 to 20 loggerheads and one hawksbill nested on local beaches last year and produced 20,000 eggs between them.
Turtles return to the beaches on which they were hatched to build their nests.
Volunteers join Department of Environment staff each year looking for, marking and monitoring the nests. Baby turtles that hatch during the day are placed in covered buckets and released at nighttime. If they enter the water during the day, they become easy prey for fish and birds that can spot them clearly against the sandy bottom of the near shore sea.
Last year, the Department of Environment’s findings showed that almost 80 per cent of the eggs laid by the turtles were fertile. “This suggests that, with sufficient protection, our Cayman Islands turtle populations can recover,” said Ms Ebanks-Petrie.
However, turtles coming onto Cayman’s beaches to nest, still face some major threats from poachers and from the use of artificial lights on the beaches.
Last year, poachers killed at least three adult turtles.
“With nesting numbers still critically low, the loss of even a few individuals will impact our populations,” the environment director said.
The three turtles that were killed could have laid a total of 1,800 eggs in a single nesting season.
“In 2011, we must continue patrolling nesting beaches at night to help prevent poaching while reducing public tolerance for the sale and consumption of wild turtle meat,” Ms Ebanks-Petrie said.
The Department of Environment is appealing to beachfront property owners and managers to turn off their outside lights at night during turtle hatching season because hatchlings become disoriented by the lights and, instead of crawling into the sea, they make their way into swimming pools, storm drains, parking lots and roads.
There are a number of reasons why turtle numbers appear to be increasing, including the return to Cayman of some turtles that had been released from the Cayman Turtle Farm, Ms Ebanks-Petrie explained.
“Our monitoring shows that both wild and Cayman Turtle Farm-released turtles are nesting on our beaches,” she said, adding that last year, five turtles with tags from the Cayman Turtle Farm were observed nesting on Seven Mile Beach.
“This suggests that a combined approach is best for conserving turtles in the wild – leave all wild nests in place to hatch naturally while continuing to release captive-bred turtles from the Cayman Turtle Farm,” she said.
Local legislation outlawing the catching of adult turtles in Cayman waters is also having an impact on the numbers of turtles that make it through the local waters onto the beaches to nest.
Ms Ebanks-Petrie said effective enforcement against turtle poaching led to four nesting female turtles being rescued from poachers before they had a chance to slaughter the animals last year
“In 2010, the Department of Environment Chief Enforcement Officer [Mark Orr] personally volunteered over 250 hours patrolling beaches at night to guard nesting turtles,” she said.
Through his efforts, and with the help of other staff and volunteers, members of the public, and the Royal Cayman Islands Police, the four turtles were rescued from poachers and many more were protected.
“These turtles laid about 40 nests and produced over 3,000 hatchlings [last] summer alone,” Ms Ebanks-Petrie said.
Did you know? Batabano is the name given to the tracks turtles make in the sand when they come onto land to nest. Each species of turtles has its own distinctive ‘batabano’. Cayman holds a Batabano Festival every May.