Exploring Cayman’s tourist attractions
As residents of the islands, we probably don’t spend much time at Cayman’s tourist attractions, yet they are well worth a trip once in a while to remind ourselves of the unique treasures we have here at home.
By Lindsey Turnbull
Turtles have been closely tied with the Cayman Islands for hundreds of years, since Christopher Columbus first discovered the islands in 1503 and named them ‘Las Tortugas’ after the hundreds of sea turtles he found here. Years ago, well before Cayman’s financial services and tourism industries took off, Caymanians would take to the sea to catch turtles to make a living, the meat offering sustenance and income and the shells a myriad of uses.
Since 1968 the Cayman Turtle Centre in West Bay has been an important means by which residents and visitors can learn about the habitats and lifestyles of these incredible creatures, which have become an endangered species, and acts to promote turtle conservation and research.
Over the years the Turtle Centre has grown and developed into a huge marine park set over 23 acres and now includes an aviary, a crocodile lagoon, a predator tank with sharks, a lagoon area that is the largest swimming pool on Cayman complete with two waterfalls, and a turtle lagoon, where you can actually swim with the turtles.
A visitor’s first glimpse of the Green Sea Turtle is almost immediately upon entry to the Centre, as they come upon the Breeder Pond that is full of these enormous creatures, the likes of which visitors have no doubt never seen before (or will again.) It is quite a sight to see just how big the turtles really are, with some of them weighing in at 500lbs, and yet how gracefully they manage to weave in and out of each other in the water.
Notice the beach at the edge of the pond that allows female turtles to nest in an environment very similar to the ones they would nest in if they were in the wild. Any eggs laid (breeding season is from May to October) are collected and moved to the turtle hatchery. But while viewing turtles is awesome, interacting with them directly at the touch tanks and wading pools takes the enjoyment factor to a whole new level. After carefully sanitising hands visitors are permitted to pick up some of the yearling turtles and even step into the tank and have them swim around their feet. This is a truly unique experience and brings people up close to these very special creatures. (Further sanitising of hands and feet is then required.)
Another brilliant interaction with turtles is actually swimming with them in the Turtle Lagoon – a great opportunity to put the Go Pro to good use!
More than just turtles!
Outside of getting to know Cayman’s turtles, there are a whole host of other local fauna to enjoy, including the excellent Predator Reef where you can watch sharks, tarpons and barracuda swim through the underwater or dry view panels. If you haven’t seen a shark up close you will become transfixed as there is something quite mesmerising about these predators. The Predator Reef Feeding Frenzy begins at 11 am daily and if you are able to visit just before lunch (11:45am ) on certain days you might be lucky enough to see a crocodile in action, when the Smiley’s Croc Encounter takes place, a really cool event at the Centre.
The Caribbean Free Flight Aviary is another great place to interact with nature. Buy small packs of food for a dollar or two and the birds, including stunning Scarlet Ibis, pigeons and even a pair of Cayman Parrots and their offspring, may come feeding directly from your hands.
Visitors can cool off in the Breakers Lagoon swimming pool, slide down the Turtle Twister Waterslide and eat lunch at Schooner’s Bar and Grill, an outside bar and grill on a covered deck overlooking Turtle Lagoon. A nature trail, butterfly garden and Cayman street of old all add to the diverse offering.
As with tourist attractions all around the world, the exit takes you through the gift shop and it’s actually a really good little shop, packed with interesting items, some of them locally made, that will serve as a great reminder of your stay.
Cayman Turtle Centre conservation fast facts:
• Green Sea Turtles are the largest of the hard-shelled sea turtles and the second largest of all turtle species;
• They start to reproduce at about 16 years;
• In 1980 the Centre introduced a small group of yearling and hatchling Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles to establish a captive breeding colony of this endangered species and to obtain further biological data on this species in a controlled environment;
• The Nest Translocation Project involves transporting eggs laid at the Turtle Centre to a popular beach location where they are buried deep in the sand, in order to replicate a natural turtle nest. Baby turtles make their way down to the sea when they hatch out. This helps implant the precise geographical coordinates which are used many years later when the mature adults come home to lay their eggs;
• Regular releases of turtles take place whereby typically one-year olds are released into the sea from beaches. More than 31,000 yearlings have been released so far.