When Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean in 1503, he called them “Las Tortugas” after the herds of turtles he found there, both in the water and on the land.
Legend says that it was possible to walk on the turtle shells like stepping stones from the water to shore. This area was the largest nesting ground in the world for this species that is as ancient as the dinosaurs.
In the 1600s and 1700s pirates hiding out on the three-island chain stored live turtles on their boats, stocking up on turtle meat for their long days at sea. Other visitors helped the turtle-food industry to flourish until the 1900s when the turtle population began to dwindle and regulations took over.
Now, the green sea turtles are back! We visited them and learned all about their fascinating life span at Cayman Turtle Farm, the largest land attraction on Grand Cayman Island.
At first glance, the Farm is like a sort of zoo for turtles, with various water tanks holding the turtles at different ages and stages of life. But it is much, much more. Here, international research and conservation activities take place, ensuring population control and safety for the hatchlings.
Turtle Life Cycle
Our guide, Benny, explained that the life of a sea turtle is a precarious one. After a female mates in the ocean, she comes ashore at night to lay her eggs in the sand.
Scientists believe she comes back to the beach where she herself was born. After finding a good spot, she digs a hole with her flippers and begins to deposit her soft-shell eggs one by one. There are as many as 150-200. When she is finished with this task, she covers the pit with sand and heads back to the ocean, never to see her babies.
After about two months, the hatchlings tear open their shells, dig up through the sand and instinctively crawl toward the sea. All this takes place again at night when they are less apt to be seen and eaten by predators, such as seagulls, crabs and dogs who will dig incessantly in the sand when they sniff the scent of the new hatchlings.
Those who do make it to the ocean—only about one percent of each hatch—then have to survive the predators they encounter in the vast new world of the sea.
At the Cayman Turtle Farm, which is owned by the Caymanian government, this life cycle is carried out through a controlled breeding program. The turtles breed in special ponds and lay their eggs in the sand at the side of the pond.
Eggs are collected and brought to the temperature-controlled hatchery where they stay in incubation until they hatch. When they are ready, the hatchings are protectively released into the ocean where, hopefully, they will live to their normal ripe old age of 150 years!
During the last two years, the farm collected 27,500 eggs and released more than 31,000 yearlings. A tagging method has been effective in determining that these “headstart” turtles do assimilate into a natural environment, and it also may allow scientists to learn if the females really do come back to their birthing site to lay their eggs, which has never been proven.
Adventures and Attractions
Besides visiting the hatchery and breeding pond, we held year-old turtles and watched families wading and snorkeling amongst older ones in a beautiful lagoon that meanders around the park. The farm is not just the home of green sea turtles.
Smiley the crocodile lives here (he showed up on the island in 2006, the first croc to be seen in the area since the 50s), and so do predators like sharks, tarpon and barracuda.
During feeding time, we saw these feared creatures devour their fish dinners served by the staff (feeding time is a real production) and later watched them circle around their reef through a glass window.
Another fun area is the Caribbean Free Flight Aviary, where exotic birds fly around in their natural settings. Don’t miss the colorful green Cayman Parrot, the national bird of Cayman. The Blue Hole Nature Trail is another natural setting within the farm where Butterfly Central is located.
You can easily spend a day here. Bring your swim suit for the water adventures and a coverup for lunch at Schooners, an open-air bar and grill overlooking the lagoon. You can indulge your tastes of Caribbean food and drink, and even order a, um . . . turtle dish.
The Cayman Turtle Farm is both an educational experience and a fun adventure. Whatever you seek, you’ll learn more about turtles than you ever wanted to know!
If You Go
Author bio: Travel writer Claudia Carbone was thrilled when her daughter and family moved to Grand Cayman, adding another interesting place to visit of her five children’s home towns.