Dear Turtle Trauma Columnist: You Are Not Alone

By HELEN S. COMBA | Oct 10, 2018
Courtesy of: Helen S. Comba Baby turtles, hatched from eggs rescued by the author, await release in the wild.

Dear Writer of Turtle Trauma Column (9/12):

You are courageous and show much empathy for the natural world. One other thing I need to add, you are not alone.

I read your SpeakEasy story published last month. You showed much bravery when you rescued a seriously injured diamondback terrapin. As I read about your efforts to save a turtle that would become yet another victim of our busy LBI Boulevard, I heard my inner voice calling out to you: You are not alone. In fact, in your story you met an empathetic individual at one of the Terrapin Nesting Project locations in Barnegat Light. Unfortunately, earlier that day, not one single person helped you during what must have been a horrific experience as you attempted to rescue a fatally injured turtle. I applaud your valiant efforts.

Just like you, I had never heard of the Terrapin Nesting Project until a diamondback terrapin (turtle) laid 12 pink eggs in my sand and stone yard in late June. A neighbor of mine (a.k.a. “caregiver of all creatures big and small” in our neighborhood) gave me a brochure for the Terrapin Nesting Project after she witnessed a female turtle dig deeply into a sandy area near her property. A quick phone call brought the Terrapin Nesting Project to our street to rescue those eggs and then a month later the ones in my yard. The TNP volunteer told me the baby turtles would not have been able to dig their way out from under our stones. My heart leaped as she drove away, knowing they were now under her care.

The job of the nesting project is to provide a safe haven for the eggs for 60 days. A small cage surrounds the individual nests along with a larger fenced-in area protecting them from raccoons, foxes or birds. A watering system with a motion detector is part of the protection system under the caring eye of the TNP. It’s not easy to be a diamondback terrapin egg in the wild or even in a protected area.

I have learned much about diamondback terrapins since then. Unlike swans, which take care of their babies for an entire year, diamondbacks abandon their eggs once laid. However, turtle babies require no assistance from the adult turtles – a fact I eventually learned from the TNP volunteer when my husband and I released 27 terrapin babies into the backwaters of Barnegat Bay. It was amazing to see these tiny creatures breathe, swim expertly, and dive deep into the muck only three days after cracking through their shells.

I don’t know if I would have had this experience if it hadn’t been for my caring neighbor. She is like you, a person who has much empathy for innocent turtles and other animals when they are in harm’s way. Recently she witnessed a cormorant “duke it out” with adult swans in our lagoon, as they vigorously protected their young charges from this intruder. Afterward, this bird seemed injured as it walked along a grassy area near my friend’s home.

“Helen, did you see the swans fighting with the cormorant?”

“No, but I did see it standing on some property near your house. Weird.”

With that, we headed back to the lagoon where we happily discovered the seemingly injured bird now gliding peacefully along. It had no apparent evidence of injury, and we were able to resume our usual activities. We did reflect on our new awareness of how protective adult swans can be of their young. Warning: Keep a distance between yourself and a family of swans despite how “cute” the babies might seem.

In contrast, female diamondback terrapins never have bonding time with their young. Their single job is to lay eggs. Under normal circumstances, this isn’t a problem, but overdevelopment and speeding cars have created havoc on our otherwise peaceful Island for them. This is why the Terrapin Nesting Project came into existence. Its mission, to rescue diamondback turtle eggs and release the hatched babies, is important work.

I have lived on this Island (summers for years and now more time with my recent retirement) somewhat oblivious to the fragile nature of survival for small creatures. I took for granted that they go their way as I go mine. I admit I have more time now to pay attention and even write to The SandPaper. But I hope to be around for a while so I can make a difference, too.

For now, with 12 eggs rescued and 27 baby terrapins released, I feel I have a good start. One small step at a time can make a difference for those tiny creatures who coexist with us on this magical Island. I will never forget that day in August when my husband and I stood side by side placing tiny turtles into the backwaters of Barnegat Bay. It was awesome! Sunlight danced on the water as each of them tested their sea legs before diving downward. A few of them paused momentarily, faces turned upward toward the warming sun before swooping toward the muck.

We met a TNP volunteer that day who took time out of her life to meet us at the location where we would release the babies. She shared in our joy by taking pictures and patiently answering all of our questions. Yes, the babies live in the muck. Yes, they will stay here for a year. Of course, everyone names them! (And so did we, all 27 of them!)

If you still feel you need some closure to the unnerving experience you had rescuing an injured turtle, contact the Terrapin Nesting Project. You, too, can release baby turtles into the bay or perhaps you might want to become a volunteer there. I might do that myself. Regardless, choose something so you can release that feeling of being alone. The sunshine along Barnegat Bay will sparkle brightly whatever you do.

Helen S. Comba of Westfield, N.J., has been a Harvey Cedars homeowner since 1994.

The author and her husband release the baby terrapins in the bay off Barnegat Light. (Courtesy of: Helen S. Comba)
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