Tourism could either be the saving grace or the downfall of the Cayman Islands’ nesting turtle populations, researchers believe.
Lighting from beachfront development poses a critical threat to turtles, which use beaches across all three islands to lay their eggs, according to the Department of Environment.
But tourism officials believe responsible eco-tourism, including nighttime tours of nesting beaches, could play a role in protecting and preserving the charismatic and endangered animals.
“A healthy wild sea turtle population can provide unforgettable experiences to visitors by allowing them to observe turtles laying their eggs, turtle tracks and nests on our beaches, and baby turtles emerging from the sand and scurrying into the ocean,” said Janice Blumenthal, a research officer at the Department of Environment.
The department has been monitoring nesting turtle populations since 1998 and officials say loggerhead and green sea turtle nesting has increased dramatically.
That increase, particularly at popular spots like Seven Mile Beach and Rum Point, has put the tiny turtle hatchlings on a collision course with humans. The nature of the interaction that takes place could determine the future of the species in the Cayman Islands.
“Due to the increase in nesting, many Caymanians and residents have recently seen nesting turtles for the first time, and many visitors have told us they will plan their next vacation to the Cayman Islands during the turtle nesting season,” said Ms Blumenthal.
“There is enormous value in our sea turtle nesting populations, yet they may cease to exist if not sufficiently protected. As more nesting now occurs on developed beaches, threats to turtles have also increased – making the survival of nesting sea turtles in the Cayman Islands uncertain.”
The greatest threat is lights from hotels, condominiums and houses that shine onto the beach and deter female turtles from nesting.
“When they emerge from their nests, hatchlings find the ocean by heading toward the brightest light they can see,” she said. “On an undeveloped beach, this is the moon and stars reflecting off the ocean’s surface, but artificial lights on buildings are often much brighter and lead the baby turtles toward land, where they die from exhaustion, dehydration, vehicles or predators. In this way, even a single light on the beach can kill thousands of hatchlings.”
The Department of Environment has issued guidelines to property owners on “turtle friendly lighting,” which it says could help mitigate the problem. Ms Blumenthal said any tourism project would have to involve strict guidelines to ensure the turtles were protected.
“If they are disturbed, female turtles may return to the sea without laying eggs, and hatchling turtles may be injured or killed. Guidelines for observing turtles responsibly include maintaining a distance, remaining quiet, and avoiding the use of bright lights or camera flashes.”
Robyn Larkin of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association said there are several success stories from other locations of environmentalists and tourism departments working together to protect turtles and promote tourism.
“Visitors value the nesting sea turtles. It is an exciting, almost magical, experience to witness a nesting female or a hatchling making its way to the ocean. People enjoy being a part of that special moment in nature.”
She cited the Turtle Village Trust in Trinidad as a good example of a responsible eco-tourism project that had helped boost turtle populations while attracting more than 60,000 visitors every year.
She said any Cayman project would have to be a partnership between the private sector and government, including the Department of Environment, and would need to involve the wider community to be successful.
Turtles and nesting
Sea turtles spend the majority of their lives in the ocean. During the nesting season, which runs from May to November in the Cayman Islands, females make their way on shore to lay their eggs in the sand. The nesting process takes about one to two hours, and then the female returns to the water, leaving distinctive tracks on the beach, known as batabano.
After 50 to 60 days, hatchlings emerge from the sand and scurry to the sea. Those that survive to grow into adulthood return after about 15 to 20 years to breed and replenish Cayman’s nesting population. Turtles of all kinds have nested on Cayman’s beaches for millions of years, Ms Blumenthal said.
She said monitoring has shown that leatherback nesting is extinct and likely lost forever; hawksbill nesting hovers at the edge of extinction; but loggerhead and green sea turtle nesting has increased dramatically.
There is already some degree of “turtle tourism” in the Cayman Islands through the Cayman Turtle Farm, which attracts 200,000 visitors every year.
Tina Trumbach, chief marketing officer for the farm, said, “This nesting season, for the first time ever, we offered nighttime turtle nesting tours on specific nights during July and August when guests were able to experience the unique opportunity of witnessing sea turtle nesting on our breeding pond beach.
“Visitors were very excited about being able to watch the female turtles crawling out of the water onto the beach, then carefully digging their nests and laying their eggs.”
The farm also offers tourists the chance to swim with its captive turtles in a salt-water lagoon. It also operates a turtle release program, which it says has led to 31,000 turtles being released into the wild.
However, the farm has faced criticism from international campaigners over conditions in which the turtles are kept. Representatives from the World Society for the Protection of Animals also claim the turtle release program at the farm is potentially damaging to wild populations.