By Christopher Tobutt
Cayman Turtle Conservation and Education Centre has opened its doors to the public again, and everything is nearly back to ‘normal’ again, apart from the fact that their biggest source of revenue, tourists from other countries, is still closed off until Cayman’s borders open back up again. Oh and of course, all the ‘normal’ social distancing rules are in place, plus, at the moment, the Centre is not open on Mondays or Tuesdays.
But everyone seemed to be having fun while learning more from their encounters with regional wildlife. Kids love visiting there because they see all the animals – the huge, majestic turtles of the breeder pond, and the little turtles too, and of course the nurse sharks and fierce and grumpy-looking great big tarpon of Predator Reef. And they love hand-feeding all the charming birds of different shapes and colours and sizes of the Caribbean Free Flight Aviary too. Plus there are plenty of places to just hang out and have fun – like the Breakers Lagoon with its water slide and waterfall.
Although the park has been shut to the public all their important conservation programmes which involve captive-breeding and release, have continued just the same, and the Centre has kept schools and the general public engaged with their virtual tours. It’s been a challenge to keep people engaged, because it’s close interactions with animals that children, especially, love, such as snorkeling with friendly turtles and fishes in the safety of the Snorkeling Lagoon, which is a great place to learn how to snorkel for the first time. “We are happy that it’s opened up again,” said a mother with her children, “the children like it – they like the water slides best of all. But when it wasn’t open we did the Facebook tour, one morning, too.”
Inside the Education Centre and Hatchery, some little tiny hatchlings could be seen through the big glass window. The Hatchery was full of Styrofoam boxes containing some of Cayman’s beach sand and eggs, taken from the artificial beach area of the breeding pond, where the huge females, weighing anything from 180 to 500 pounds, lumber up onto the sand to make their nests. The Cayman beach sand is so that the turtles, who have a mysterious homing instinct that brings adult turtles back, sometimes over hundreds of miles, to the very same beach from which they hatched.
Green sea turtles have been making a comeback in the Cayman Islands after nearly becoming extinct, and their numbers, down to just a handful a couple of decades ago, are well up into the hundreds now. Two years ago an scientific survey found out that 9 out of 10 nesting turtles are directly related to those released from the Centre in previous years, and so although such dramatic increases in population may be due to multiple factors, it seems clear that the Centre has played a major role in this success story. More and more, people can see groups of five, ten or even fifteen turtles swimming around our shores, and, coming to make their nests, too.
In the Caribbean Free Flight Aviary, the Turtle Centre has again been busy, breeding rare and endangered birds for release into the wild. Normally, Cayman Law prohibits Cayman’s national bird from being kept in captivity, but around 10 years ago the Department of Environment contacted the Centre to see if the Aviary could look after some rescue parrots that had been injured and could no longer fly. The story has a happy ending, because not only did the Aviary take care of them, but they began to breed, and now a large number of Grand Cayman Parrots have been released into the wild. The latest chapter in this success story is ‘Bluffy,’ the first-ever Cayman Brac baby parrot hatched in captivity, from a couple of rescue parrots both found on Grand Cayman.
There is much more too, to do see at the Turtle Centre, and it’s really a great family day out. And now is a good time to visit because everyone is only charged for the special “resident” rate for the whole park - C$15 for adults and CI$10 for children from ages 3 to 12, with children under two are free. At present, the Centre is open from Wednesdays through to Sundays from 8 am to 5 pm, with the last admission at 4.30 pm.