Year in review: Wildlife stories top features in 2021

The content originally appeared on: Cayman Compass

In a year where COVID-19 once again dominated local and international headlines, along came a news-making story no one expected- the tale of a stowaway raccoon on the run in West Bay.

It was one of several ‘creature features’ that made the local news cycle in 2021 here at the Cayman Compass.

Here are some of the top wildlife-related stories of 2021.

This article contains images of dead reef sharks that some readers may find distressing. 

Raccoon on the run

In late October, two juvenile raccoons were discovered in a shipping container in West Bay at the Republix Plaza. One was trapped on site, but one escaped.

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A week-and-a-half later, a passing bus driver spotted the runaway raccoon in the vicinity of Foster’s Republix, where the raccoons were first discovered. 

Though the juvenile invader did not have a name when he and his fellow male companion arrived in the shipping container, by the time he was captured, the raccoon had been adopted on social media and given Caymanian status by social commenters who sought to keep him from being extradited back to the US.

The incident also inspired a host of memes over the days the animal was on the lam.

Memes featuring the raccoon was posted widely on social media.

The raccoon – affectionately called Benji by some and Ricky by others – was euthanised by the Department of Agriculture after the animal was discovered injured upon capture. 

The other racoon was also euthanised.

Both raccoons were tested for rabies, as that was a huge concern with Cayman being a rabies-free jurisdiction. They were both found to be disease-free, which both the DoA and the Department of Environment were grateful for, as the re-introduction of rabies would have had severe implications for local wildlife.

Turtle rescues

Here in Cayman, turtles are of special significance culturally and environmentally. So it is no surprise that everyone kicks into action when there is any sign of trouble for the beloved reptiles. 

On World Sea Turtle Day, 16 June, an annual occasion observed globally to promote the protection of turtles, a group of holidayers, together with staff at Pirates Point, Little Cayman and the DoE rescued a huge green sea turtle trapped in bushes on the grounds of the resort.

It was the first of three rescues within weeks of each other. 

In July, a female loggerhead turtle was rescued from a swimming pool, after being disoriented by artificial lighting during the passage of Tropical Storm Elsa. The turtle was found in the pool and was believed to have been disoriented by the lighting, when coming up onto the beach to nest. She was lifted out of the pool and returned to the sea. 

Almost a month later, the Cayman Islands Coast Guard rescued a juvenile hawksbill turtle on 10 Aug., after it became entangled in a poacher’s trap. A member of the public had raised the alarm about a distressed turtle which was caught in a net that was attached to two buoys. The animal was trapped in a designated environmental zone, which strictly prohibits the taking of any marine life. Coast Guard officers freed the animal and returned it to the sea.

Record nesting for loggerheads

Cayman’s loggerhead turtle nesting season ended with a record-breaking 343 nests registered across all three islands, however green sea turtles did not fare as well, with the DoE noting a drop in the numbers for that species this year.

Out of a total of 474 nests for all types of turtles across all three islands, only 131 green sea turtle nests had been recorded at the time of reporting, down from a record high of 353 for greens last year. This year’s loggerhead nests surpassed the 2017 record of 332 nests.

This is one of the eggs from the late season green turtle nest on Seven Mile Beach. -Photo: Joe Roche

Six weeks after no new turtle nests had been recorded, the DoE turtle team were surprised by the discovery of a a green turtle nest on 31 Oct. on Seven Mile Beach. It was thought that the nesting season had finished; the DoE team said it was very uncommon for green turtle nests to be laid this late. Usually, it is hawksbill turtles that lay nests later in the year, like the Christmas Eve nest found on the Brac in 2020.

The final tally of nests for 2021 is yet to be released.

Shark-killings in Cayman waters increase

This year, the DoE relaunched its Sharklogger Network, in which volunteer divers help monitor Cayman’s shark population. However, in the weeks after the restart, there were reports of shark-killings.

Two dead juvenile reef sharks were found on a Newlands boat dock and the fins of a nurse shark were found at the Lobster Pot dock in George Town.

The number of sharks killed in Cayman’s waters has been increasing and this year, the DoE said up to Thursday, 26 Aug., 27 dead sharks had been reported, 11 more than the 16 dead animals reported in 2019.

The DoE logged just one report of a dead nurse shark last year, but with COVID restrictions and lockdown in 2020, that number is not regarded as accurate. 

Also in August, the body of what is believed to be a pygmy sperm whale embryo, which died during Tropical Storm Grace, washed ashore in Bodden Town. The embryo was approx. 3 feet and had underdeveloped eyes and teeth, the DoE said. It was believed the mother was caught in Tropical Storm Grace and prematurely aborted the pregnancy, leading to the embryo’s death.

Locals treated to exciting animal sightings 

Any sighting of marine life in the wild is a memorable one and, in 2021, there were quite a few notable experiences, from shark sightings to a baby dolphin rescue at Seven Mile Beach.

In January, beachgoers were treated to a Caribbean reef shark taking a swim along the coastline; it was the first of several. Later in the year, a hammerhead shark was caught on camera chasing a stingray at the Sandbar. 

The Department of Environment is inviting divers to join the Sharklogging Network. – Photo: Ben Philipps

In the days leading up to, and on, World Oceans Day, divers were treated to the sights of some exciting marine life, as pods of dolphins and pilot whales were seen swimming beside their dive boats.

In June, the crew and passengers of the Cayman Aggressor, while crossing from Little Cayman to Grand Cayman, were accompanied by a pod of pilot whales frolicking by the boat. Crew and passengers on a Sunset Divers boat, heading to Lone Star Reef off Seven Mile Beach had the company of a small pod of dolphins, thought to be spinner dolphins.

The playful mammals leapt out the water beside the boat for several minutes.

Days later, more dolphins were spotted by divers as they headed out in East End.

This screengrab shows a baby dolphin that was found in distress on Seven Mile Beach. The animal was treated for injury and later released by Department of Environment staff.

In August, a baby dolphin was found in distress on Seven Mile Beach. 

The DoE treated the mammal for an injury and then escorted it back into deeper waters to safety.

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