Turtle Fishing in Grand Cayman

Clinton Whittaker and 300 pound Turtles

We have returned to our favorite island paradise, Grand Cayman, on the peaceful North Side. This part of the island, far from grand and glittering hotels of Seven Mile Beach, far from the cruise boats and their frenetic passengers, is quiet. People snorkel, bike, relax, and chat with their neighbors. One of our neighbors, and a family friend for over 50 years, is Clinton Whittaker, age 87. Clinton says he has a stiff neck, but he still stands straight and tall, and when he talks about the old days, his eyes still sparkle.


Selfie: Martha, Clinton Whittaker, and John

Clinton sits with us on a bar stools at a local gathering place called Over the Edge. He sips on his seven-up and recalls images of life 65 years ago. As I reconstruct his story, which is no where near verbatum, try to imagine it delivered with a musical cadence, almost like a Scottish brogue, which is typical of the old-time native Caymanians.

Turtling in the 1940’s
Did I tell you about that time in a turtle boat? When I was 20 years old, I worked as a turtle fisherman. One time we were working off the coast of Nicaragua, and that was almost the end of us. There were three of us in the sailboat – me, my brother, and the captain. My job was to bring the turtles in from the nets with a gaff hook – and sometimes those turtles were over 300 pounds. Our boat was about 26 feet long and six feet wide; when we were full with turtles, we’d transfer them to another bigger boat. The captain brought us too close to the reef – he wouldn’t listen to us, what could we do? We had no say. We had to drop the mainsail and work with only the jib. We were lucky; we avoided being smashed on the reef. Other boats weren’t so lucky. One of the other boats was lost and the crews never returned. They probably starved to death on shore.


 Turtles and Cayman history
In so many ways, Clinton’s story is the story of the history of Grand Cayman, an island where people lived off the sea. Turtles were associated with the island since Columbus discovered Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, “Las Tortugas” (the turtles) in 1503. Turtles became a mainstay of the economy once the land was inhabited in about 1700, and that continued through the years, with turtling grounds for Cayman turtle fishermen moving from Cayman to Cuba and then to Nicaragua as the turtle populations in each area were depleted. By the 1950’s, green turtles were nearly extinct in the Caribbean.

The 30’s and 40’s were the waning years for turtle fishing, not only because turtles were becoming scarce, but because the development of synthetics and plastics replaced the demand for tortoise shell.

When the turtling industry died, many Caymanians did what Clinton did – they took their nautical skills elsewhere and joined the merchant marines. Clinton has more stories to tell about his experiences traveling the world, including places like Dubai.

Clinton’s father was a cane cutter in Cuba – but that’s a story for another blog.


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