In the early hours of the morning from July through November, a natural phenomenon takes place on Seven Mile Beach as newborn turtles break free from their shells, fight their way up through the sand in which they are buried, and make their way to their ocean life.
Before they can do that, female turtles must first come to shore, dig a hole in the sand, lay their eggs and then cover the nest with sand. Here in the Cayman Islands, the female turtles do that between May and October.
With the odds of survival already stacked against the hatchlings, turtle nesting sometimes requires a little help from some human friends. The first step is to monitor the location of the nests through the help of volunteers who walk the beach throughout the nesting season in search of unmarked turtle nests.
Since 1998, the Cayman Islands Department of Environment has been running the turtle nest monitoring programme across all three Cayman Islands to identify, monitor and protect marine turtle nests. Thanks to the support of volunteers over the past 21 years, green sea turtles are making a comeback from near extinction.
“The resurgence of Cayman’s nesting sea turtle population is one of our great success stories over the past two decades,” said Janice Blumenthal, a Department of Environment marine research officer. “Three species of sea turtles — greens, loggerheads and hawksbills — nest in Cayman. Sustained growth has occurred as a result of combined efforts to monitor and protect our nesting turtles, significant cooperation from local developers and residents and also the reintroduction of tens of thousands of green turtles into the marine environment during the 1980s and early 1990s by the Cayman Turtle Centre.”
Since 2016, Dart employees have volunteered to assist the Department of Environment with its turtle nest monitoring programme.
“This year we have had great success and the volunteer calendar is almost all filled out,” said Carmen Damaso-Doucette, a Dart employee who heads the company’s turtle nest monitoring volunteer programme. Dart volunteers can be found combing a section of Seven Mile Beach early on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday mornings, while Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa staff take on the task Mondays and Thursdays.
In additional efforts to contribute to safe turtle nesting, Dart, as the developer, and Kimpton, as the operator, installed turtle-friendly outdoor lighting near the beach around Kimpton Seafire. The latest manifestation of this turtle-friendly lighting approach is being realised at the new construction north of the resort, said Dart Design Manager Nicholas Forari Denney.
Plans to pedestrianise and enhance the area adjacent to Seafire include a new watersports building, an extension of a shared-use path, a public right-of-way and a parking lot.
“Dart worked with the Department of Environment to ensure site and building lighting would be turtle-friendly, which is critical in this active nesting zone,” said Denney. “In addition to using lights with a wavelength of 580 nanometers or greater, lights have been shielded, lights have been kept as low to the ground as possible and lights have been directed away from the ocean to prevent turtles and hatchlings from mistaking the artificial light for the moonlight that directs them towards the sea.”
Even with human help, sea turtles are still very much at risk. Scientists estimate that only one in every 1,000 eggs will result in an adult sea turtle — whether that be due to artificial lighting, poaching or various other threats, making turtle nest monitoring volunteers a constant need.
Now through the help of volunteers, the Cayman Islands can monitor and protect these turtles. Prospective volunteers in the summer months can help the Department of Environment staff to find, mark, monitor and protect turtle nests. For Cayman’s residents, Blumenthal said picking up discarded trash like plastic and glass items from the beach is something they can do to help the hatchlings.
“If one is using heavy equipment on a beach, make sure to contact the DoE first,” she said. “Bulldozers and similar equipment can crush turtle nests. Also, one must obtain the proper permits before attempting a beach bonfire.” Historically, sea turtles serve as a significant symbol for the Cayman Islands and appear in the currency, national seal and flag.
Through turtle nest monitoring programmes, volunteers and cooperation, the people of the Cayman Islands can help to keep these marine animals safe.
Early morning beach walkers can report findings to the turtle hotline 938-NEST (6378).