It Takes a Team to Rescue a Terrapin

By SUSAN POAGE | Jul 12, 2017
Courtesy of: Susan Poage Matthew and Emily Dilkes with Lucky, the injured diamondback terrapin.

On July 4, the wind was blowing from the north. It was perfect weather on LBI for a swim in the bay. I was sitting on the deck with my daughter Alex, reading and listening to sea gulls and the sounds of my neighbors’ grandchildren, Emily and Matthew Dilkes, splashing in the calm waters behind Mark Drive in Peahala Park. Suddenly Matthew yelled to his father to get him a net. 

Alex and I sat up and peered over the deck rail to see Matthew use the net to scoop up a turtle and hand it to his father. The turtle was put on the picnic table between the two houses for an examination. Matthew’s father, Don Dilkes, saw the cracked shell and wanted to put it back together. The reptile’s shell was badly lacerated and some of the animal’s organs were visible. Leslie Dilkes, Don’s wife, pushed the organs back in and he used the only first aid material available on short notice: duct tape. 

With the makeshift bandages in place, the animal was put in a cooler with some water. Emily and Matthew watched the reptile move slowly in the cooler and named it Lucky – lucky to have survived an obvious encounter with a boat propeller.

Meanwhile, Alex called her father to take a look. Russell has always loved turtles and recognized the animal to be a diamondback terrapin, a species of turtle that lives in brackish coastal tidal marshes. He announced he was going to try to find a rescue center.

He Googled “turtle rescue LBI,” which gave him a link to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, which led him to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP gave Russell a few numbers to try. After an hour on the phone, he determined the best choice was to get the terrapin to Stockton University, where they have a science lab. He spoke to John Rokita, who told him the lab was closing for the day but asked him to bring the turtle in the next morning “dead or alive” because if the animal was female, her eggs could be harvested.

I put down my book and went over to the table to hear the tale of the turtle’s rescue from the bay. Emily told me she had noticed a stream of blood behind the swimming reptile. “Usually turtles don’t swim toward humans,” Emily said, and she realized it must have been hurt badly to come toward them. Her brother Matthew said he saw the shell cracked in three places, two on the right and one on the left, and immediately thought, “I have to help this turtle.”

Toward the end of the day Lucky started to move around a little bit more. “I feel happy because I know it is going to get better,” Emily told me. Lucky would have to convalesce in the cooler overnight, and the next morning the cooler became a stretcher for the transport to Stockton in Galloway Township, a little over a half hour away.

Upon arrival at Stockton’s School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, John Rokita, principal lab technician, looked at the terrapin and determined Lucky to be a 30-year-old female. Since the damage was under the duct tape, he asked Russell to describe the injuries to the shell and thanked him for bringing the terrapin to the lab.

As any passionate turtle lover would have done, Russell asked for a tour of the facility. When I asked about the lab, I was told the Science Lab at Stockton has a Head Start Diamondback Terrapin program begun by retired professor Dr. Roger Wood and works in conjunction with the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor to harvest the eggs of terrapins killed or injured. They hatch the eggs in incubators and raise the reptiles for 10 months to a year until they are between 2 and 3 inches long. Then they release them into the coastal areas that are the habitat of the diamondback terrapin. 

After leaving Lucky at Stockton, I spent the car ride home researching a little bit more about the program. According to the Stockton University Facebook page, interns retrieve terrapins that have been killed on the road in order to extract the eggs. I learned a really interesting fact. “Since incubation temperatures determine terrapin gender, all hatchlings are incubated to become females, since it’s the females that get hit on their way to nesting sites.”

Returning home, Russell and I told the Dilkeses about Lucky’s arrival at the lab and all about the project and how Mr. Rokita thanked them for saving Lucky. Matthew said, “We are so happy we saved her.” Leslie Dilkes added, “Lucky was the name on the day we found her, but we have changed her name to Faith.”

For more information on the Diamondback Terrapin project, go to projectterrapin.org.

Susan Poage lives in Berkeley Heights, N.J., and Peahala Park.


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