For Caymanians, sea turtles are more than just a majestic sea creature. These animals are a prominent symbol in Cayman culture, and you’ll find sea turtles used as part of our official identity in many different ways. Turtles adorn Caymanian money and appear on the islands’ flag as part of the official coat of arms, showing just how important this animal is. But why the turtle? The answer is rooted deep in history, and it reveals interesting insight into the Cayman Islands’ past.
Cayman Turtles in the Age of Exploration
Cayman was once home to a thriving population of sea turtles. In fact, by the time Christopher Columbus reached the islands in the early 16th century, there were more turtles than perhps any other form of life on the islands. Columbus referred to the land as Las Tortugas, using the Spanish word for “turtles” as a descriptive moniker.
The Cayman Islands quickly became internationally renowned for its abundant turtle population, and while this notoriety was good news for the islands’ human inhabitants, it wasn’t so positive for the turtles themselves. Hungry sailors in need of fresh meat while at sea took a keen interest in Cayman turtles, and within a few centuries, the islands’ turtle population was almost completely wiped out.
Important Past, Strong Future
This historical context is a bit difficult to accept given the modern focus on conservation, but it’s helpful to remember that, to a sailor in the 17th century, a Cayman turtle was a source of life-sustaining sustenance. The islands’ inhabitants quickly began harvesting and selling sea turtles to these sailors, which brought unprecedented prosperity to the local population. Turtles allowed these small islands to gain an international economic presence when they otherwise might have remained obscure. These animals are a major figure in Cayman history, and that alone makes them a powerful symbol of prosperity.
However, there’s a modern slant to Caymanians’ reverence for the sea turtle. Beyond simply serving as a symbol, Cayman sea turtles are a living sign of the islands’ beauty and connection to the sea. Efforts to rebuild the local turtle population have been ongoing since the 1980s, and there’s an attitude of stewardship among modern Caymanians. A thriving sea turtle population has long been one of the Cayman Islands’ most distinctive characteristics, and we’re focused on rebuilding that status to protect and preserve this wonderful species.
To get involved in turtle conservation, we invite you to get in touch with The Cayman Turtle Center, an educational center all about the preservation of turtles and volunteer opportunities. The Cayman Turtle Center partakes in yearly turtle releases. The average Hatchery egg collection for the last two years was 27,500 eggs, and over 31,000 yearlings have been released so far up to today. Every year in November during the Pirate’s Week – a week long Carnival Celebration, always falling on the same day as the West Bay Heritage Day, lucky members of the public are chosen from a raffle to join the Crew of the Center in releasing several turtles.
For additional information regarding the release program please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pictures by Dan Legend - Instagram account @Danhlegend