Cayman Islands’ turtle patrol helps hatchlings beat the odds


“Sometimes nature needs a little helping hand.” James Whittaker (Cayman Compass) reports on the Department of Environment’s turtle monitoring program in the Cayman Islands, and the work of Lucy Collyer, a led intern who manages a massive volunteer effort to find and protect every nest on all three islands. Problems for hatchlings include poaching, natural disasters, and beachfront lighting, among other issues:

From fishing hatchlings out of a condo pool at 2:30 a.m. to hatching eggs from storm-damaged nests in a bucket in her bathtub, Lucy Collyer is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for Cayman’s nesting turtle population. [. . .] A record 688 nests were recorded this year, producing an estimated 50,000 hatchlings. The range of dangers the baby turtles face are so diverse that only 50 are expected to survive to adulthood. The turtle monitoring program seeks to improve those precarious odds and help ensure the future of the islands’ turtle populations.

For Ms. Collyer, that means organizing volunteer patrols, thwarting poachers and fielding calls from police, condo managers and conservation officers at all times of the night.


One day in August, she was called at 6:30 a.m. to assist a turtle found crawling helplessly around West Bay Cemetery. The turtle had dug its nest close to the fence separating the beach from the graveyard and inadvertently re-emerged on the other side. As soon as she dealt with that emergency, the phone was buzzing again. This time, conservation officers had found a turtle laid out on its back in a shed in East End, already impaled with hooks and destined for the butcher’s knife. “The great thing was that we were able to get both those turtles back into the ocean and both nested again later in the season,” said Ms. Collyer.

Other nesting turtles were not so lucky. Poaching remains a menace on certain beaches and Department of Environment enforcement officers recorded at least five incidents this year. Nature brings its own threats. The storm surge from Hurricane Irma inundated at least four nests, which had to be excavated by volunteers.

“At one point, we had three nests in our bathtub,” says Ms. Collyer, who shares a home – turtle headquarters – with Joe Roche Chaloner and Alejandro Prat Varela, the two other main Department of Environment interns on the project. Using buckets filled with sand to replicate the conditions of a nest, they monitored them till they were ready to hatch. “We ended up hatching 500 turtles at home,” she said.

[. . .] “The 688 nests this year produced over 50,000 baby turtles, which is an incredible opportunity to secure the future of our nesting population. However, many baby turtles were killed before they ever reached the sea [because of] artificial lights on our beaches,” said Ms. Blumenthal. “The turtles nesting this year were born 20 and 30 years ago when conditions on our beaches were very different,” she said. “In effect, by looking at nesting numbers, we are looking back at how conditions were in the past. If the turtles born this year do not survive, due to artificial lighting on our beaches, we will not see a decline in nesting numbers until it is too late to do something about it.”

She said lighting was the key issue impacting the survival of hatchlings, which have an inborn tendency to move in the brightest direction, which historically would have been the night sky reflected on the ocean. The Department of Environment is working with beachfront property owners to introduce “turtle-friendly lighting” on all nesting beaches.

[Photos: First (top): A newly-hatched baby turtle in the Cayman Islands. Photo courtesy Sandro Abderhalden, from Scuba News; Second photo: The Department of Environment’s Lucy Collyer holds a turtle hatchling from the first nest of 2017; from Cayman Compass.]

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