On a quiet Little Cayman beach on Saturday evening July 5, a small group of lucky and excited turtle watch volunteers witnessed a rare and special event – the hatching of the island’s first turtle nest of the season. This is the ultimate payoff for the volunteers who work with the Cayman Islands Department of Environment’s Marine Turtle Research Conservation Program by walking the beaches to spot and protect turtle nests from May to November. It is also a rare one because predicting when a nest will hatch is never certain.
“It’s incredibly difficult to catch a nest hatching - we were very lucky because it is such a special thing!” says Jennifer Mills, general manager of the Southern Cross Club and long time turtle watch volunteer. Mills says they had an idea that the Loggerhead nest might hatch on Saturday night, and although their prediction was right, by the time they arrived on site most of the baby turtles had left and only four remained. “We could tell from the tiny tracks that those that had already hatched had made it safely to the sea.”
The volunteers carefully watched the last four babies struggle out of the nest, and they made sure the hatchings didn’t get caught up in nearby shrubs or fall victim to predators. Although Mills has been a turtle watch volunteer for 11 years, she has only seen a nest hatching 3 or 4 times.
“It was incredibly exciting because we watched the baby turtles take their first steps to the sea! To watch them go into the water - it's a huge relief because you know they have at least made it that far and they have a long way to go,” she said. “We could not contain our excitement on Saturday! To witness such a wonder of nature is, for me, overwhelmingly wonderful. I feel very privileged to have been part of it.”
Fellow volunteer and Southern Cross Club co-worker Renita Schouten was also there to see the baby turtles begin their journey to the sea. “It was incredible! Being a turtle watch volunteer is one of the coolest things to do here. It's a great project, all for the good of the island.”
The government’s turtle conservation program relies on volunteers like Mills, Schouten and other Little Cayman residents to help find and monitor nests during season, and at the Southern Cross Club a beach walk is organized every Monday. Residents working at neighboring resorts also target specific beaches in groups, clearing trash and keeping an eye out for turtle activity. Beachfront homeowners help out by walking those beaches, and Mills says this makes a big difference because all crucial areas are covered.
“This then leaves some key areas to be covered by group walks and we cover these areas in Spot Bay, Bloody Bay and Jackson's. Our staff here is very supportive, religiously participating in the Monday group walk and sharing their experiences, creating awareness amongst the resort guests.”
The volunteers report their finds by calling the Sea Turtle Hotline 345-938-NEST (938-6378). New turtle nests are marked and protected. Mills says volunteer response this year has been outstanding.
“We are very lucky here on Little Cayman to have a community which genuinely cares about the island; our residents are conservation minded and have an avid interest in protecting the marine environment,” she said.
The Southern Cross Club and the Central Caribbean Marine Institute organized an island wide beach cleanup in advance of nesting season to provide turtles with pristine beaches on which to lay their eggs. During May and June sea turtles mate and the females swim ashore to lay their eggs on the beach. In an enduring mystery of the sea, the turtles that lay their eggs on Little Cayman were hatched from nests on the same beaches. They come home to nest, and it is up to their human neighbors to protect nesting turtles, turtle nests and baby turtles.
“When the nesting is in full swing there are so many nests here, it is essential for the whole community to come together to support this project and together do all we can to protect our turtles,” says Jennifer Mills.
Department of Environment Research Officer Janice Blumenthal: “Thanks to the Southern Cross Club and the rest of the Little Cayman Community, we have already found, marked and protected 30 turtle nests in Little Cayman.”
The Department of Environment conservation program raises awareness on all three islands and educates the public on what needs to be done to protect the turtles, and thanks to these efforts, sea turtles are making a comeback. Cayman waters have traditionally been home to four types of sea turtles - green, loggerhead, hawksbill and leatherback. Once abundant, the turtle populations declined almost to extinction because of commercial fishing.
The Department of Environment began surveying beaches in 1998 to identify turtle nests and track the nesting season, and from the start asked the community to help. In addition to reporting turtle nests and tracks, beachfront property owners and managers are asked to use turtle friendly lights, or turn off lights from May to November.
A certain amount of turtle eco-tourism has developed, a direct result of properties like the Southern Cross Club taking part in protecting the nests and improving survival chances for the hatchings. For now the turtle watches are meant to patrol the beaches to log new nests. When the nests start hatching in the fall, the focus shifts as the hatchlings begin their dangerous journey to the sea. Females who survive into adulthood may someday return to nest on the same Little Cayman beach where they were born.
With an officer of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, Jennifer Mills and the other Little Cayman volunteers will in a few days return to excavate the nest that hatched over the weekend to count the shells and see how many turtles hatched. They will rescue and release any baby turtles that may have hatched late and remove the eggs that didn’t develop. All this information will be recorded for the conservation program.
While sea turtles are making a comeback in Cayman, the overall worldwide population of the highly migratory turtles is either endangered or threatened. The actions of volunteers on the beaches of Little Cayman contribute to the survival of the species, and the recovery of this beloved symbol of the Cayman Islands, also part of a shared Caribbean heritage.
About the Southern Cross Club
The casually sophisticated Southern Cross Club Fish & Dive Resort is Little Cayman's original resort. It features 12 beachfront bungalows complete with a top-rated, professional in-house diving and fishing operation. A unique blend of rusticity and elegance the resort is often described as “Barefoot Luxury”. Guests can expect friendly and diligent service, delicious food, inviting rooms with breath-taking views and a comfortable dive boat ― a few of the things that bring them back year after year. Little Cayman is renowned for its breath-taking and pristine coral reefs and spectacular dive adventures. The resort’s beach-based location also provides flats fisherman with access to Bonefish and Permit just minutes away.
For reservations or more information:
Telephone: 1 (800) 899-CLUB (2582)
MEDIA CONTACT: Adela Gonzales White, Adela.G.White@comcast.net, (941) 350-8735