Why does Grand Cayman need a turtle farm? Because without it the turtles there likely would have become extinct by now. People have harvested turtles for food from the Caymans since Columbus first came across the islands in 1503 and called them Las Tortugas due to the amount of turtles there. Seafarers of the 17th and 18th centuries followed suit and used Grand Cayman turtles as a means of fresh meat on their ships. Early settlers of the islands hunted turtles to sell to passing ships for income as well as for their own survival. By the 19th century the turtle population was depleted to the point that ships had to go elsewhere for turtle meat. Turtle remains the national dish of the Caymans to this day, though a good percentage of the population doesn’t eat it.
Caymanians of the 20th century still consumed turtles, but by then they had become too scarce for commercial hunts. In 1968 the turtle farm was established, originally just as a means of producing turtle meat both as a source of income and to reduce poaching of the few remaining wild turtles. Somewhere along the way the farm also started releasing turtles to the wild.
The farm still sells some turtles as meat, which greatly reduces illegal hunting of turtles still left in the wild. Most turtle meat is consumed by locals, but there are some restaurants that serve it and a few tourists give it a try. The farm now breeds rare Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles as well as their original Green Sea Turtles, which are also an endangered species. Some of their released turtles have matured and come back to the island to breed helping the number of turtle nests in the wild to rise.
What started as a private enterprise is now a government-run facility. After losing the majority of their turtles in 2001 when a hurricane washed them out to sea, the farm moved inland to an expanded facility with a bigger breeding lagoon, an artificial reef where visitors to the farm can snorkel with fish and turtles, and other tourist amenities including a restaurant.
Shore excursions from Carnival Breeze in Grand Cayman included a couple to the turtle farm, one with lunch included and one without. The one without cost the same as getting there on your own by public bus and less than taking a taxi. We chose to go on our own anyway so we could visit the exhibits at our own pace and avoid the crowd rather than getting herded through in a group on someone else’s timetable.
Our ship came in to port at 8am, the same time the turtle farm’s website said they opened. The ship was on Miami time though, one hour earlier than island time. That actually worked out quite well for us. We caught the first tender off the boat and headed ashore with a map in hand showing a bus stop next to the public library. There are 3 tender piers in Georgetown. We were at the one in the middle. From there we took a right and walked about a block to Fort Street where we headed inland. The library is about a block from the water and the bus terminal sits right next to it. The bus cost $2.50 USD per ride. The yellow line bus goes to the turtle farm and one goes by about every 15 minutes. One sat at the terminal when we got there so we got right on. It had just one other passenger at the start, but this is mainly local transportation and various people get on and off all along the way. They let us out right in front of the turtle farm and said we could catch a return bus either under a tree there or at a bus stop just down the road.
We got there at 8:45 our time, so just before they opened. When they did we were the first visitors there. A few more people showed up between when the front desk opened and when the doors out into the exhibits did. The turtle farm has two price options. For $18 you get a green wrist band and can see the large turtles in the breeding pond, the hatchery, and a few other exhibits at the front. For $45 you get a blue wrist band with full access to the rest of the park including a pond where you can snorkel with turtles and fish, a waterslide and pool, aviary, and nature trail. There’s also a predator tank with sharks and a barracuda. You don’t swim with them though.
The swimming areas opened an hour after the park so we had a bit of time to stroll around and look at things. A booth sold turtle food, and the big turtles in the breeding pond are quite happy if anyone buys some to throw to them. It looks just like dry dog food. The hatchery had cases of turtle eggs and a little room with a movie explaining all about the turtles they raise there and how some get released into the wild and others sold for meat which helps to prevent poaching of the wild ones.
A group of little tanks with little turtles serves as an area where visitors can hold the turtles if they are careful and follow the directions on signs posted there. A couple of the tanks have stairways where people can go in the water with the little turtles. All of the bigger turtles in bigger tanks have signs saying not to touch them, though throwing turtle food into the water for them is fine.
By arriving at the farm ahead of the crowd we got to see most everything without anyone else around us. We did run into a group at the little turtle handling ponds, but had the option to leave there at will and go off in a different direction. The turtle snorkeling pond stayed empty of people awhile after my watch said it should have opened, but apparently nobody else was ready to swim yet because the only thing the worker there said when I went to get in the water was that snorkel vests were required. I despise snorkel vests. Warm salt water is very buoyant and it is much easier to float than to dive under the surface. At least they didn’t charge a rental fee for it. Though a lot of places require the vests they don’t ever make people put air into them if they don’t want to.
We had seen from the bridge between the turtle and predator ponds where most of the turtles and fish hung out, the opposite side of the pond from the beach near the area where the restrooms/showers and booth of snorkel equipment were located. There is a ladder into the water near the bridge, but it’s a lot more fun to swim there and snorkel along the way.
underwater video from snorkeling in the turtle lagoon
Some turtles and a few fish swam about through areas of the pond away from the bridge and a sunken ship around the middle of it made a nice resting place for several turtles. Another advantage of going there on our own – I had the whole bathroom to myself to shower off and get ready for the swim and the whole pond to myself for quite some time. As I swam back to the starting beach a few people went by the other way, the first of the cruise ship crowd that were entering the water as I left it.
From there we went to the freshwater pool, which had a waterslide, a waterfall, no turtles, and not many people. The slide was not as tall or as fast as the ones on the Carnival Breeze. Iguanas sunned themselves on the rock by the waterfall at that pool. Other iguanas and lizards large and small roamed the park freely and sunned themselves anywhere they liked. Little birds hung out at the edge of turtle ponds, stealing food from the little turtles and hoping some washed ashore from the bigger ones.
We had paid the $20 deposit for locker use, but since John decided not to go in the water we never actually used the lock since he watched our stuff while I snorkeled. We did remember to return the lock before we left though and got $17 back because they keep $3 as a locker rental fee whether you actually use the lock or not.
We only waited about 5 minutes before the bus came by when we decided to leave. Another couple was already under the tree waiting. Before returning to Georgetown the bus went through Hell, so anyone wanting to go there could get off and have a look around before going back to the ship if they had time. They would just have to pay another $2.50 each for the bus fare on the next ride.
We had time after reaching Georgetown to walk down to Paradise Restaurant and look at the tarpon. John still had his swimming trunks on since he had decided not to swim with the turtles. He’s not nearly so fond of snorkeling as I am, but he can’t resist snorkeling with tarpon.
I’d already changed and figured he’d be done quicker than I could put my swimsuit back on (which he was) so I just stayed on shore while he went in to swim with the giant fish. Farther from shore they have coral reefs and more colorful fish, but it’s the tarpon he always wants to see. From the restaurant there is a stairway into the sea, which is a marine park. It’s free to snorkel there. Anyone who doesn’t have their own gear can rent it from the restaurant. They also have lockers available.