A hard shelled, green island welcomed Christopher Columbus and his crew to the Grand Caymans. But this green wasn’t the result of a lush landscape. Upon docking, Columbus got a closer look and named the island Las Tortugas, after the abundance of sea turtles.
The name is not the only trace of turtles in Grand Cayman history. The same reptiles that watched dinosaurs roam the earth then disappear, were the same ones that fed Caribbean sailors from the 1600‘s through the 1700s. Vessels docked at the Cayman Islands where they caught the turtles to keep aboard as a source of fresh meat. Permanent settlements then developed on the islands in the seventeenth century where sea turtles served as a source of income as well as food.
Luckily, the Cayman Turtle Farm: Island Wildlife Encounter was eventually established, transforming them from a menu option to one of the island’s most popular attractions. But the process to get there was not always a smooth ride.
In 1968, Mariculture Ltd, a group of investors from the U.S. and Great Britain bought the land to raise the turtles for commercial purposes. After putting the work in domesticating the animals, regulations were made to protect the innocent creatures. With close to 100,000 turtles and an unsuccessful plan, their revenue quickly drained. After changing hands a couple of times, the Cayman Islands government finally purchased the land in 1983.
Now there are 23 acres dedicated to green sea turtles ranging from 5 pounds to 500 pounds. To learn a little about the turtles you're going to see, visit the education center first where the island's history is also displayed.
The hatchery is also part of the education center. During breeding season which runs May through October, lucky visitors get to watch new hatchlings make their way up through the sand of their incubation boxes.
In addition to Green sea turtles, there is a resident Loggerhead, the second largest of the hard-shelled turtles. In contrast, Rare Kemp's Ridley are the smallest of all the sea turtles and can only be found in the Gulf of Mexico. Considered the most endangered sea turtle, these little buggers can bite so no petting is allowed.
For a more interactive species, Murtle the Turtle is the only trained sea turtle in the world. Sitting pretty at 3 feet and 110 pounds, she responds to a combination of hand signals and positive reinforcement, similar to dolphin training.
Another, new addition to the wildlife family was Smiley, the nine foot crocodile. When she was brought to the park, tests proved she was a hybrid of two species of crocodile and it is unethical to release hybrids into the wild. Now, Smiley resides among fellow reptiles under the protection of the park.
Visitors can play with the sluggish animals in turtle touch tanks or get even closer by snorkeling in the turtle lagoon where peacocks and iguanas compliment the colorful marine life. Swim in the Island’s largest swimming pool, The Breaker’s Lagoon. With two waterfalls and an underwater viewing panel, it is fun for everyone. Slide down turtle twister water slide, also located on the beachfront property.
After a day of fun, swimming and petting turtles, food is probably on your mind. Schooner's Bar and Grill, located in the center of the park, offers Caribbean and international dishes.
Try some island favorites like conch fritters, shaded by a covered deck, overlooking the Turtle Lagoon. While they serve the usual-shrimp, burgers, and chicken- guests can dine on turtle dishes that represent the local cuisine. Whether you're feeling the adventurous cuisine or not, wash it all down with the island's very own beer, Caybrew.
The Grand Cayman sea turtles have certainly come a long way. From a delicacy to a source of entertainment, the island has become their safe haven. And since sea turtles are notoriously known for returning to the beach front nesting sites of their mothers and grandmothers, it’s safe to say the island will always be called home.
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