by Victoria Adams
To eat, or not to eat.
Friends call me a tree hugging liberal—I take it as a compliment. I recycle. I turned a corner of our backyard into a compost heap. I fast in recognition of world famine. I have adopted foster children from Third World countries and whales on the brink of extinction. More recently I turned my focus to food, eating and cooking in a way that supports sustainable agriculture. This means always using local products, which in turn supports local farmers and local economies. Wherever possible I try to eat and cook organic foods that do not harm the environment and choose my food conscientiously. I boycotted swordfish when stocks were low. I refuse to buy Provimi veal (baby veal that is raised in boxes to ensure tender meat) and sought alternatives to the endangered Beluga caviar. But I found myself in a quandary in the Cayman Islands.
As a chef, I am always curious to sample the local fare. Not surprisingly, while in the Caymans I wanted to taste the local dishes that featured turtle meat but I could not possibly add to the declining number of wild green sea turtles. I was struggling between my desire to taste and my environmental beliefs. Could I eat turtle meat? Could I be here and miss this opportunity?
At one time the Cayman Islands and surrounding waters were full of green sea turtles. Historically, Cayman Islanders survived on their turtle populations as a source of food and income, selling the meat to sailors. This healthy lean animal was perfect for ships as the turtles could be kept alive onboard until needed and were a great alternative to the usual meal of fish. Throughout history, natives of the Cayman Islands learned how to catch, kill, and cook turtle. Christopher Columbus called the islands Las Tortogas because of the abundance of turtles.
For many years, turtling was the prime industry for the people of the Cayman Islands, which ultimately led to the loss of turtle populations. By the 1900’s, stocks were so depleted that today these once numerous creatures are all but gone. Turtles are now protected and efforts are being made to restore the population but the fact is, it is a rare sight to see one of these magnificent creatures in the wild.
There is a ban on turtle hunting in many countries. Yet in the Caymans turtles are raised for meat on a turtle farm, then sold and served in stews, soups, and as pan-fried steaks. Wild stocks are not hindered in any way. You would think my conscience would have been relieved with this knowledge. But I was still torn. It would be hypocritical to fight to save a species and then turn around and eat one for pure pleasure. To make matters worse, I was getting a lot of ribbing from my friends, who had all heard my views (O.K., lectures) on the environment and our roles in preserving it. Could I possibly not only justify eating turtle meat to myself but also convey to others that as a chef it was my job? Eating turtle meat was not any different from eating cow meat or chicken meat yet I would never eat rhino or elephant. I knew there was a distinction but my ethical lines were increasingly blurred.
The Gods were clearly playing with my head as well on this trip. Earlier in the week, my friend Chris and I went diving through the extraordinary coral reefs that surround the island. The Cayman Islands (comprising of Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac) were formed by volcanic activities under the ocean creating a submerged mountain range complete with cliffs, drop-offs, and caverns. Over the years coral and tropical fish have made these underwater mountains home, developing some of the best diving and underwater viewing in the Caribbean.
We had been diving every day and had come across gigantic golden barrel sponges, black coral, lavender sea whips, sea foam green sea fans, vase sponges, tube sponges, and brick red colored branching coral as well as grouper, lobster, squirrelfish, starfish, parrotfish, and queen angels. I’d been diving other islands in the Caribbean but had yet to see any turtles.
Early one morning Chris and I were exploring the sheer drop-off wall that makes Cayman famous for diving. Suspended in indigo, we slowly floated past wide expanses of hard coral. I was mesmerized by the vibrant colors that surprised me at every turn. Patches of bright yellow, fiery red and deep purple circled in front of our eyes. Bright, stoplight-colored parrotfish swam past our masks. The visibility was clear and we could see almost a hundred feet in front of us, enveloped in quietness and tranquility.
Chris was leading the dive since I was looking around too much to be of any help navigating. We were just about out of time and at the turn-around point when Chris suddenly stopped, waving to get my attention pointing upwards.
Caught in the rays of sunlight striking the surface were two gigantic turtles. Their front flippers propelled them forward effortlessly as they soared past. They must have been old because they were huge. Covered in a green slime that looked like moss, the creatures looked ancient, placid, their hard dome shells emitting a protruding neck. We stayed glued to our spot and watched as these peaceful magnificent animals glided easily above, unconcerned with us and oblivious to our awe. I wanted to reach out and touch them, they were that close, but the rule of diving is to observe, not interfere.
Chris and I were wide-eyed and smiling behind our regulators, both giving the other the thumbs up sign, signifying our delight instead of our need to ascend. We made eye contact and Chris pointed at himself and then me and then the turtles. He flicked his fingers in a scissoring motion to tell me that we were going to follow them. We set off after them, but try as we might to catch up, we were left in their wake as they swam out of sight—but not out of memory.
How could I eat turtle meat now?
Knowledge is power so I decided to journey to the island’s Turtle Farm in West Bay to learn more about the turtles. Started in 1968, the Cayman Island Turtle Farm is home to more than sixteen thousand green sea turtles ranging from six ounces to six hundred pounds. It is both a commercial enterprise raising turtles for local consumption and a sanctuary successfully operating a breed/release program, introducing fifteen hundred turtles back into the wild a year.
The conservation program at the farm is the only one of its kind in the world for green sea turtles. After being hatched from eggs the turtles are raised for one year before forty percent of the stronger turtles are tagged and released by professional divers who swim them out to sea, giving them a head start and better chance of survival. The survival rate of these farm-raised turtles is higher than turtles born in the wild where they are prey for birds, animals, marine life, and poachers. The farm’s commitment to conservation ensures the continuation of the species as well as contributing to ongoing research.
Green sea turtles can grow up to seven hundred pounds and lay more than five hundred eggs every two to four years. The problem of survival lies in the eggs deposited on the beach. Of these five hundred eggs, only ten hatchlings will survive to adulthood. Birds and raccoons uncover and eat the eggs onshore; humans poach the eggs, which are a highly prized delicacy in Asian countries; and many eggs simply do not hatch. If the eggs hatch and the babies make it safely from the beach to the sea, then larger fish will prey on them or they will be hunted by humans for meat and their large decorative shells. Turtles do not start breeding for twenty-four years. Naturally repopulating a dwindling species is slow work.
This enterprise is a necessity but it is also expensive and difficult to fund. This is where the commercial side comes into play. The other sixty percent of the farm’s turtles are raised to four years of age and sold for food. This commercial arm supplies local restaurants and shops with more than one hundred thousand pounds of meat to prepare their national dishes. The farm diminishes the need for locals to hunt turtles in the wild, further protecting existing populations. The program would not be financially viable without this local market to fund the conservation. To date, over thirty thousand sea turtles have been released.
Armed with these new facts and reassured that I would not be depleting the world’s population of wild sea turtles but actually helping them, I was ready to make my decision, or so I thought, after my visit to the turtle farm. But once again I chastised myself. How could I spend the day learning about these magnificent creatures of the sea and then sit down to dine on them?
Ultimately, my chef’s curiosity won and I went seeking turtle steaks at the Wharf, a seafood restaurant on the western side of the island serving Continental Caymanian Cuisine. Located just north of the main town of Georgetown, the Wharf is decorated sailor-style in blue and white, with a large verandah looking out over seven-miles of beach and the nearby sea. It had a reputation for serving local food as well as classic dishes from around the world.
I had trouble convincing Chris, or anyone else, to try turtle meat, so I was dining alone. But I like dining alone. While others feel uncomfortable, I take pleasure in being able to look around, study a place, listen to music, and watch people. It is a perfect time for me to sit with my thoughts and reflect. I listened to the guitarist play soft Caribbean music, and smelled the bougainvillea with just my thoughts to entertain me. The February night was warm and a full moon filled the sky over the bay.
I had arrived just after eight at night and despite being a single person was able to acquire a table on the deck outside. As I took a sip of my wine I opened the menu. Right there were Turtle Steaks in an Island Sauce. This was it. The time had come.
I confidently told the waiter, “I am in the Caymans. I want to try the Caymanian cuisine. I want the turtle steak.”
“Good choice,” he told me with a wink, “you will not be disappointed.”
The meat, from the flipper, was cut into a thin scaloppini and pounded to make it tender. It was then seasoned with a little salt and pepper and pan-fried with tomato, celery, green pepper, and thyme. Ripe tomatoes were added to make a sauce and it was served with rice and peas (an island staple) and fried plantains. It had the color of well-cooked pork, a beefy flavor, and only slightly chewy texture. It was both delicate yet distinct in flavor. Delicious.
I ate only one meal of turtle meat but decided that there was a valid reason for turtle being a national dish, something every visitor must indulge in—once. It was truly a culinary experience and guilty feelings or not, tree-hugging liberal or not, I will always remember it.
Victoria Adams follows her stomach around the globe. As a chef on a luxury yacht, she has traveled to Europe, the Caribbean, South Africa, Nepal, Vietnam, Australia, and is currently exploring the islands in the South Pacific. She is working on her first book.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.