A couple of months ago I went on my very first international solo adventure. We had just returned from Vietnam, which had been sunny and hot. Coming home to the frigid temperatures and gloomy skies of northern Virginia was a real buzz kill. I reached out to my group of traveling friends, but alas, no one could leave on such short notice. So I closed my eyes and held my breath as I clicked the “Purchase Now” button for a solo snorkeling trip to Grand Cayman. But snorkeling wasn’t the only thing on my island agenda. The endangered green sea turtle was calling my name as well.
Cayman Islands Green Sea Turtle History
When Christopher Columbus first sighted the Cayman Islands in 1503, he named them “Las Tortugas” due to the abundance of sea turtles in the surrounding waters. In fact, island natives became experts at hunting them, and green sea turtle became a large percentage of the protein the islanders consumed in their diets. The sea turtle was also important to the economy of the islands, and even appears on the Cayman Island’s flag.
In the early 1900s however, populations of sea turtles began to decline worldwide. Soon after, hunting them was banned internationally. But this left the residents of the Cayman Islands in an interesting quandary. The green sea turtle was a food source they had depended on for sustenance throughout their history.
So, in 1968 a group of investors from the US and Britain opened the Cayman Turtle Farm. Its for-profit mission was to supply turtle products to the world, without it having a negative impact on wild sea turtle populations. The farm has been through many changes since then, and today is owned by the Cayman Islands government. “The goal of this new company is to produce enough turtles to supply the needs of the local market and continue releasing turtles [into the wild].”
The end result of all the changes to the Cayman Turtle Farm over the last half century is that the Cayman Islands are now the only place in the world where you can legally consume the green sea turtle.
Rationalizing My Decision to Eat Sea Turtle
It didn’t take me long to find that there were at least two places on Grand Cayman that regularly offered green sea turtle on their menu. One of them – Myrtle’s – was within walking distance from my hotel. But I won’t lie … making a decision to sample green sea turtle wasn’t easy. It is, after all, an endangered species. So, I decided to hold off making the decision until I had done enough research to make my choice an easy one.
Ultimately my research all boiled down to this … The Cayman Turtle Farm was originally founded for the sole purpose of raising sea turtles for consumption. Over the years, that purpose morphed into also breeding and releasing sea turtles back into to wild. But without the market for sea turtle meat, the farm would not exist. There likely wouldn’t be enough revenue to keep the farm open if they were not able to sell some of their sea turtles for consumption.
I believe this to be true not only from the research I did, but from personally talking to the owner of Myrtle’s and a representative at the Cayman Turtle Farm.
My Green Sea Turtle Dinner at Myrtle’s Restaurant & Bar
Myrtle’s is a very unassuming little restaurant hidden away in a strip mall in Queen’s Court Plaza along Seven Mile Beach. When I first walked in I wasn’t sure it was even open. There were no customers, and the only light that was on was in the kitchen. But I was soon greeted by Mr. Myrtle, the owner, who turned on the lights and presented me with my menu.
I immediately chatted him up and told him of my mission to sample the green sea turtle. He was very pleased to hear that, and it soon became evident how proud he is of his Island heritage, especially the history of the sea turtles and their importance to the Cayman Islands.
I ordered the sea turtle soup as a starter and the sea turtle steak as my entrée.
My green sea turtle soup was very spicy, yet not hot. It was an interesting flavor I had sampled in other dishes since arriving on the island. The meat reminded me of beef stew that had been cooked for a long time. There were pieces of fat that had dark spots on them that looked like they may be impressions from the turtle’s shell. The fat was very soft, yet not oily or greasy. The soup also contained cassava, green pepper, potatoes, onions and celery. The layers of flavors were amazing, suggesting that Mr. Myrtle (or his chef) knew exactly what they were doing.
When my green sea turtle steak arrived, it resembled a cube steak as opposed to a ribeye. In fact, as I was enjoying my soup, I could hear them pounding my turtle steak in the background, obviously to help tenderize it. It was about 1/2” to 5/8” thick, and a little tough though not bad at all. It was obvious from the beginning that everything I sampled had been made totally from scratch.
The dinner was not inexpensive, but I actually found everything on the island to be overpriced. My green sea turtle soup was $6 KYD, which converts to $7.32 US. The green sea turtle steak was $32 KYD, which is $39.02 US. It certainly was not a budget meal, and as such, not something I would be eating often. But for the experience it was definitely money well spent.
Mr. Myrtle of Myrtle’s Restaurant & Bar
If you’re ever visiting Grand Cayman, I highly recommend going to Myrtle’s Restaurant & Bar. Even if you aren’t interested in sampling the green sea turtle, I believe you will really enjoy the authentic island vibe. Mr. Myrtle was a joy to talk with, and will enthusiastically share all his knowledge and love for the island and its food. I regret that I was not able to go back a second time to sample the “ackee and codfish,” which Mr. Myrtle says is another island favorite.
Disclosure: I did not receive compensation in any form for writing this article.