The Turtles of Coral Cay
A tourist destination becomes a breeding center for a protected mammal

December 1st, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] v5-12-Feature-TurtlesTurtles are breeding and the phenomenon is taking place not only in the waters of Bay Islands but also in the enclosures at the Marine Park in Coral Cay. Between August and September, 10 turtle nests were dug on a stretch of sandy beach adjacent to the Marine Park’s turtle enclosure in Dixon Cove.

Since some female green turtles lay more than one time, the program probably has six to eight egg-laying females. Considering there are 15 females in total and females don’t lay eggs two years in a row, the ratio is especially impressive.

By end of November there was still one nest that hadn’t hatched. Coral Cay staff divided the nest into two, so the turtles in more deeply situated eggs had a better chance to dig themselves out of the sand and survive. Then there was nothing else to do but wait.

With each nest containing between 100 and 200 eggs, Coral Cay turtles have given birth to over 900 offspring. 100 of these young turtles are kept in one of the tanks. “When they are so small everything wants to eat them … snakes, birds, fish. Here they have a place to grow,” says Elena Gonzalez, tours manager. On a diet of shrimp and mazuki feed, within a couple weeks the green turtles double in size. When the small turtles grow a bit more, 50 of them will be tagged and released into the wild.

Over the last three years, since Coral Cay opened for business, the attitude of the environmentally conscious towards the Coral Cay marine park has swayed. Originally many Sandy Bay-West End Marine Park representatives remained skeptical and even opposed the concept of the tourist marine park. The idea of keeping captured marine animals and making money from tourists viewing them wasn’t an easy sell in the West End diver community. But when the turtles started laying eggs, the attitudes changed, and changed quickly.

“I am really surprised that they have reproduced in such a confined space,” said Greg Puncher, an ex-co-director of Sandy Bay Marine Park. “That’s a breeding program and I am all for breeding programs.”

The Coral Cay facility sits on a half of a cay known as Green Cay on the southeast corner of Dixon Cove. The facility opened to the public in March 2005, right before their original 45 turtles were brought in from Nicaragua. Since then other turtles and marine animals have joined them. A 30-year-old Loggerhead turtle was brought in by one of Roatan’s shrimp boat captains. “It was wounded and too weak to be with the green turtles,” says Elena. A year later the Loggerhead, a vegetarian, hangs out in the pool with six smaller and less aggressive Hawksbills.

Coral Cay’s open water enclosure is home to 45 green turtles, 12 nurse sharks, several puffer fish, tarpon and sucker fish. Originally the enclosure had naturally growing turtle grass, but the turtles ate the entire strip. The turtles required daily harvesting of turtle grass that would then be thrown into the enclosure.

Over the last year, all but one of the green turtles transitioned from eating sea grass to mazuki feed. An old green female still only eats sea grass which has to be harvested daily and brought in to the enclosure.

Workers usually (and visitors always) use gloves whenever touching the marine mammals. This protects turtles and humans, as turtles are common carriers for salmonella and sun lotion worn by people can easily get into the turtles’ eyes and cause infection.

As the pools are cleaned every week, so are the turtles. The keepers lift the turtles out of the pool and place them on sand where they clean algae from their shell, flippers, tail, and head using stiff plastic brushes and sand. “The Loggerhead turtles are much gentler and easier to handle,” says Fredy Urbina, the caretaker of the marine animals at the Cay. Urbina is one of half a dozen Coral Cay staff who care for the turtles or tourists. The visitors to Coral Cay receive a 45-minute tour explaining the behavior and habitat of the turtles and the marine environment of the Bay Islands. “Some of them have never seen a reef or a mangrove,” says Elena.

While turtle breeding has shown Coral Cay’s marine program to be successful, there is room for improvement. Without the oversight of a biologist, or just a specialized veterinarian, the proper maintenance of these delicate animals is difficult and at times impossible. The growing menagerie of Coral Cay animals begs for a biologist or marine scientist to look after them.

While the keepers use their instincts and best intentions in handling the turtles, their instincts are not always accurate. While green turtles are herbivores, the park caretakers feed the animals fish. This can lead to internal infections and even death.

“That may not harm them as long as they eat only a little bit,” says Stephen Dunbar, PhD, from Loma Linda University’s Marine Sciences Department. Dr. Dunbar wants to study the Coral Cay turtles and bring Loma Linda graduate students to study the content of fats, carbohydrates and proteins in the diets of the Coral Cay’s turtles.

For the last year Dr. Dunbar has been tagging and studying wild turtles off the coast of Roatan. Dr. Dunbar is heading two turtle protection organizations: TAPS (Turtle Awareness and Protection Studies) and ProTECTOR (Protective Turtle Ecology Cooperative for Training, Outreach and Research), its umbrella organization. Through the TAPS program, 50-54 turtles, the majority of them Hawksbills, have been tagged off Roatan in 2007. Dr. Dunbar wants to continue the work on Roatan and work also with the captured animals.

Coral Cay is not the only place on the island to see captured marine animals or even turtles. The Iguana Farm in French Cay has five freshwater turtles and four green turtles. The 6,500 sf enclosure is smaller than in Coral Cay and doesn’t have beach access where the female turtles could even consider laying eggs.

Blue Ocean Reef, a condominium development on the north shore of Roatan, has begun constructing a marine enclosure where, amongst other animals, turtles will be kept. The enclosure will have beach access.

v5-12-Feature-Turtles

Green Turtle’s A, B, Cs

The green turtle lives in tropical and subtropical seas around the world. The green turtle has a teardrop-shaped carapace and a pair of large, paddle-like flippers which are lightly-colored olive brown.

The carapaces of juvenile green turtles are dark brown to olive, while those of mature adults are lighter in color–brown, spotted or marbled. Its limbs are dark-colored or yellow and are usually marked with a large dark brown spot.

Unlike the closely-related hawksbill turtle, the green turtle’s snout is very short and its beak is unhooked. The horny sheath of the turtle’s upper jaw possesses a slightly denticulated edge, while its lower jaw has stronger, serrated, more defined denticulation. The dorsal surface of the turtle’s head has a single pair of prefrontal scales.

The turtle is named for the greenish coloration of its fat and flesh, not for its olive brown color. Its carapace is composed of five central scutes flanked by four pairs of lateral scutes. Underneath, the green turtle has four pairs of infra-marginal scutes covering the area between the turtle’s plastron and its shell. The mature green turtles’ front appendages have a single claw, as opposed to the hawksbill’s two claws.

Unlike the hawksbill and loggerhead turtles, the green turtle is mostly herbivorous. The adults are commonly found in shallow lagoons, feeding mostly on sea grass. Green turtles migrate hundreds of miles between their feeding grounds and the beaches they hatched from.

Female green turtles decide if and with whom they will mate. After mating in the water at night, the females haul themselves onto the beach above the high tide line. Upon reaching a suitable nesting site, the pregnant female then digs a hole with her hind flippers and deposits a number of eggs in the nest. The number of eggs laid per litter depends on the age of the female but ranges between 100 to 200 eggs.

After 45 to 75 days, the eggs hatch during the night and the newborn turtles instinctively head directly towards the water. This is the most dangerous time in a turtle’s life. A significant percentage of turtle hatchlings never make it to the ocean. Juvenile green turtles spend from three to five years in the open ocean as carnivores before they settle as immature juveniles into a more herbivorous, shallow-water lifestyle. Those that survive grow to maturity and live to a maximum of 80 years, 1.5 meters long and up to 300 kilograms in weight.

As a species recognized as endangered by international nature protection organizations, green turtle is protected from exploitation in most countries worldwide. It is illegal to collect, harm or kill individual turtles. Many turtles die as a result of being caught in fishermen’s nets and drowning. Honduran shrimp boats are required to carry Turtle Exclusion Devices, or TEDs, that lower the chance of turtles being caught in the nets and drowning. [/private]

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