Turtle nest patrollers found the dead bodies of 33 baby Loggerhead turtles on Cayman Brac’s public beach Sunday morning.
The baby turtles had been disoriented by the lights when they emerged from their nest and wandered inland rather than out to sea. Hatchling turtles head toward the brightest horizon to find the ocean, which on a natural beach, would be the moon and stars over the water, but on beaches with artificial lights, they go towards those lights.
Residents say they had pleaded with District Administration and Public Works Department officials to turn the lights off during the period in which the turtles were expected to hatch, but the lights remained on.
Local resident and turtle nest patrol member Loraine Theoret came across the baby turtles in the early morning hours of Sunday while she was cycling. The patrol team on Cayman Brac daily monitors known nesting areas during nesting season for signs of fresh turtle nests or hatchling emergences.
Ms Theoret and her daughter Sarah Wall alerted the Turtle Patrol network and the mother and daughter, along with members of the patrol, collected the dead baby turtles and rescued any they could find alive.
Bonnie Scott-Edwards and her husband Gene Edwards excavated the nest site to determine the damage and found four surviving baby Loggerhead turtles in the nest.
Ms Scott-Edwards said there had been 148 eggs in the nest. Of those, 14 were unhatched or undeveloped and 134 were empty. The volunteers found 33 live hatchlings and 33 dead ones.
“That means 68 are unaccounted for. There were very few tracks that we could see that went into the sea, just three or four. A few others ended at crab holes, others led back into the bush,” she said. She said this was the second year that she had been monitoring turtle nests on that strip of beach. “The same thing happened last year. There were 25 baby turtles found on the road,” Ms Scott-Edwards said.
The four turtles found alive in the nest, along with the 29 others found wandering in the area, were released at dusk Sunday night by the nest site. Baby turtles stand a better chance of survival if released at night because predatory birds and fish are not normally around to attack or eat them.
Cayman Brac District Commissioner Ernie Scott said turning all the lights on the beach out for several nights during nesting season would not be possible because members of the public regularly use the beach at night for social gatherings and functions.
“Ms Scott-Edwards contacted me one day last week and asked if we could black out the public beach for the next few nights because it was expected that the turtles would be hatching and come out of the nest. I asked if she could pin it down to a specific night but she said she couldn’t,” Mr. Scott said.
“Public beach is used more widely at night than during the day,” he said. Mr. Scott said he had told Ms Scott-Edwards that she could turn out the lights at the huts on the beach, but the street lights would have to remain on.
The site on the Brac’s public beach has proven to be a hazardous one for baby turtles. During the monitoring of the nest, patrollers reported seeing vehicle tyre tracks several times very near the nest.
“We really weren’t sure we’d see any hatchlings produced from this nest,” said Ms Scott-Edwards.
Janice Blumenthal of the Department of Environment described the loss of the turtles as a “very sad situation”.
“DoE staff and volunteers do everything we can to prevent misorientation of hatchlings but unfortunately, this happens more often than most people realise, as most of our important nesting beaches in the Cayman Islands now have lights that shine onto the beach and toward the sea,” Ms Blumenthal said.
She added: “Given the increasing number of nests on lighted beaches, the only long-term solution to protect turtle nesting populations is “turtle friendly” lighting. There are many lighting solutions that work for turtles and people: for example, putting security lights on motion sensors, directing spotlights lights downward, and planting vegetation in front of beach front pathway lights.”
Anyone who finds lost hatchlings or wants to report a nest should call the Department of Environment on 938-NEST (938-6378).