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Chelonioidea have found themselves listed among the gastronomic pleasures since William Dampier exclaimed that their meat was like that of the sweetest pullet. Initially introduced into the mariner’s diet, sea turtle quickly found itself on the epicure’s table.  Sailors coming to the West Indies hunted green turtle to supplement a diet of salted meat and ship biscuit for something fresh and apparently delectable.

Sea turtle was caught in two ways, the first was to spear them from a small boat:

Central America: spearing green turtle on the Musquito Coast

Central America: spearing green turtle on the Musquito Coast, 1874.  Photo:New York Public Library.

Alternatively, sailors could wait for the turtles to come ashore to lay eggs, and then flip them over on their backs:


Catching a Sea Turtle, Turning it Over for Later Retrieval.

Leathery turtle; Haw's-bill turtle; catching turtles on the coast of Cuba. 1856, Photo: New York Public Library.

Leathery turtle; Haw’s-bill turtle; catching turtles on the coast of Cuba. 1856, Photo: New York Public Library.


Thomas Gage, an English Jesuit travelling in disguise, traveling from Spain to West Indies reports:

“We fed the first week almost upon nothing but tortoise; which seemed likewise to us, that had never before seen it, one of the sea monsters…Our Spaniards made with them a lovely broth with all sorts of spices.  The meat seemed rather flesh than sea fish, which being corned with salt, and hung up two or three days in the air, tasted like veal.”

De Leat also mentions provisioning with salted turtle.  However as of yet, while turtle was deemed tasty, it was by no means a luxury food in the maritime community.  John Fryer, in the East Indies from 1672-80 relates: Turtle meat “restores vigor to the body, giving it a grace and lustre as elegant as viper wine does consumptive persons and worn out prostitutes.”  This source of fresh meat was a huge draw to 17th century mariners; Dutch, English & Spanish ships took on turtle as provisions regularly, keeping live turtles on deck by giving them a pint of water a day.

Turtle Humeri Fragments From Port Royal.

Top: Turtle Humeri From Port Royal, red lines signify cuts; Bottom Right: Common butchery patterns found on cattle long bones from 17th century sites.

Green Sea Turtle long bones recovered from the excavation of the catastrophic Port Royal 17th century site demonstrate contemporary butchery practices.  After examining the humeri found at the site, it appears that butchers were dis-articulating the marine animal in ways very similar to other livestock.