Visitors to the Cayman Islands are able to interact with green sea turtles as part of a decades-old conservation project, as well as swim with them in their natural habitat.
The green sea turtle has been integral to the economy of the Cayman Islands for over 400 years. It’s on the money, the flag, the official seal – it’s even the mascot of the national airline, Cayman Airways.
These days, the Cayman Islands native green sea turtle is seen not so much as a source of food but a national emblem of marine conservation, raising captive-bred sea turtles and releasing them back into the wild, bringing the once-decimated population back from the brink of extinction.
In the late 1960s, the ‘Cayman Turtle Farm’ was opened by a group of investors to breed green sea turtles in an exclusive deal with the Cayman Islands government. Today, the Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter has a more ecological focus as an important research project and conservation facility, becoming the largest land-based tourist attraction in the Cayman Islands, with up to half a million visitors a year.
It is the only institution in the world that successfully breeds green sea turtles, releases captive-bred sea turtles into the wild, and allows visitors hands-on turtle encounters and swimming with turtles, making a visit to the centre one of the most popular things to do in the Cayman Islands.
The 23-acre park also features predators, birds, caiman, and other creatures in addition to its star turtles, which range in size from tiny hatchlings right up to Sparky, a 70-year-old female weighing about 550 pounds. Many of the turtles have been with the centre since it began in 1968.
Turtle Lagoon is a man-made area stocked with algae for the sea turtles and other marine life. Snorkels, swim vests and masks are provided for visitors to get into the water for an up-close encounter as the turtles swim about, scratch themselves on the coral below, or play with one another.
Since 1968, the centre has released over 31,000 turtles into the wild, and each year more captive-bred turtles are released into the Caribbean Sea from beaches around Grand Cayman. As a direct result, green sea turtle nests have recovered from just one in 1999 to over 200 nests today. Researchers say that 90% of the wild nesting green turtles in the Cayman Islands are a result of Cayman Turtle Conservation and Education Centre’s captive breeding and release programme.
With this rebound in the population of the green sea turtles, visitors get the rare opportunity to enjoy swimming with sea turtles in their natural habitat.
Excellent shore snorkelling and turtle-spotting are possible all around Grand Cayman, with perfect conditions for water activities year-round. Its famous sandy beaches are ideal for watersports thanks to a coastline that features small coves and shallow-water coral reefs adjacent to deep ocean drop-offs. Three well-known turtle-spotting areas accessible from the beach are:
Spotts Beach: A well-known beach about a 20-minute drive from George Town centre, a popular spot to watch the sunset but also the best place to swim wild with turtles in Grand Cayman. A big sea turtle population lives in this seagrass-covered area so you can encounter several turtles while swimming around. Sea conditions can be rough around Spotts Beach and it is not recommended for weak or inexperienced swimmers.
Cemetery Beach: This tranquil beach is on the quieter part of the Seven Mile Beach away from the hustle and bustle of George Town. The sand is powdery fine and there are big sea grape trees to provide shade. The reef system begins around 50 metres from shore. As well as enjoying a turtle adventure, expect to see spectacular corals and colourful fish species, stingrays and nurse sharks.
Turtle Reef: The Turtle Reef near the Grand Cayman turtle farm is a famous scuba diving site. With its shallow reef close to the shore it also provides excellent snorkelling for the whole family. As well as turtles, you can also see a wide variety of fish like parrotfish, filefish, barracuda, grouper, octopus and stingray. Snorkelling in the ocean with Cayman Island green turtles is an unforgettable holiday experience – as is a visit to Cayman Turtle Centre: Island Wildlife Encounter, where you not only get to touch and swim with turtles but also support the conservation effort while enjoying one of the most talked-about excursions in Grand Cayman.