There used to be vast numbers of turtles in the waters of the three Cayman Islands, so much so that when Christopher Columbus passed by in 1503, he nicknamed the smaller two islands Las Tortugas, "the turtles".
Unfortunately, the clear waters worked to their disadvantage, making the turtles easy to harvest to feed hungry sailors. Their meat continues to be a traditional local dish, served as a steak or in soup, and overfishing eventually led to a population collapse. In response, the Cayman Turtle Farm was set up to breed turtles in captivity for the table and also release adults into the ocean.
The farm is now a tourist attraction where visitors can handle these gentle creatures out of the water. Having seen a turtle swimming free in the wild, the concrete pens of the farm are a shock. The tour guide explains the turtle life cycle, from the incubators where I watch tiny hatchlings struggle upwards through sand, to the giant 250kg adults.
The farm has been criticized for its hygiene and the tank where visitors can snorkel with the turtles looks very murky and uninviting. As with fish farms, there is a question as to whether stock bred in captivity can thrive in the wild and if the cost, in terms of genetic weakness or the spread of disease – not to mention the annual subsidy – might be too high. The Cayman Islands government spends $10 million a year in support, or about $175 per year for every resident.
“To break even, it would have to double visitor numbers and, as three-quarters come from cruises, that is dependent on the building of a new port,” says one skeptical resident I meet in a bar. The farm claims to have released more than 30,000 turtles and says that, by providing a reliable source of meat for restaurants, it discourages fishermen from poaching. Critics say that there is no humane way to keep what is essentially a solitary creature in crowded pens.
“The subsidy could be better spent on anti-poaching patrols and a proper conservation policy,” says the skeptic, who asks not to be named. Restoring the population, by whatever means, might have a side effect of even more benefit than keeping turtle on local menus.
TRVL is the first traveler-to-traveler booking platform. Be a part of it and make travel better!