A homecoming for terrapins

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MARGATE – Although they couldn’t say so, the turtles released into the marshland Sunday seemed very happy to be home. No sooner than Drexel University professor James Spotila put flippers on the marsh did the more than two dozen turtles scurry off into their natural habitat.

“I think they were getting a little worried when they heard they were in a bait shop,” Spotila said.

For those familiar with the bait shop and its owner know those turtles were in very good hands.

For the past five years, Spotila, the Betz Chair Professor of Environmental Science has been working with Robin Scott, owner of Ray Scott’s Dock on Amherst Avenue to protect and preserve the local diamondback terrapin turtle population.

Throughout the year, Scott serves as mother hen to the turtles kept in her bait and tackle shop. The turtles are bought in by locals familiar with Scott’s efforts; sometimes even left at her front door.

Scott keeps the turtles and feeds them until they are big enough to venture out into the wild on their own. She also visits local schools and events to promote turtle preservation and wetlands conversation.

Partnering with academics like Spotila and students from the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science in Ocean County, researchers collect data about the local population of turtles thanks to Scott’s efforts.

“They come down once a month and weigh them to see how much they lose or gain,” Scott said Sunday, Sept 30.

During the Margate Fall Funfest, Spotila manned a table in front of Scott’s, handing out information about his efforts to saving sea turtles from global extinction through the Leatherback Trust.

“She’s saved hundreds, maybe thousands of turtles,” Spotila said Sunday. “They have a 10 times better chance (at surviving) than hatchlings.”

When he is not saving local turtles and teaching, Spotila conducts research at the Goldring-Gund Marine Biology Station at Playa Grande, Costa Rica as well as other locations in Greece and South America.

Spotila explained the turtles play an important role for the wetlands by eating snails and crabs.

“If we didn’t have any turtles out there we would be overrun with snails and they would take over and we would see the marsh deteriorate,” Spotila said.

Captaining one of Scott’s boats on Sunday during the turtle release was Axar Patel, 23, of Atlantic City. While pursuing his Master’s degree in Environmental Science at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Patel has been lending an extra hand with the turtles while interning at Scott’s.

With Patel and Spotila, were Stockton student Kathleen Kernan, 21, of Stratford, local fisherman Zach Allerton, 25, of Margate and his mother Jackie and a bucket full of turtles; 27 to be exact. Some hatched earlier this year, others a little older and bigger; all ranging in diameter from 50-cent piece to a softball.

By coming to Scott’s and speaking with Spotila, the Allertons had their questions about terrapins answered and got to see first hand how excited they were to go home.

The turtles were released in two locations deep into the marshland accessed through tributaries across the bay from Ray Scott’s Dock.

“It takes a lot of effort to keep these guys in the marsh,” Spotila explained.

He was recently performed a shell reconstruction of a turtle whose was crushed by a car. That turtle wasn’t ready for release and is currently at the MATES school and Spotila explained that during the course of the turtle’s life, it will discard the screws and pieces that reinforce the shell once they become unnecessary.

Each time Spotila releases turtles, he does so in a different location and the most recent releases took him to Lakes Bay and near the former Hackney’s restaurant in Atlantic City. 

“We’ll go far enough on the marsh so they don’t wash in with the tide,” Spotila said.

The smaller turtles were placed on the marsh in one location and quickly scurried off into a forest of marsh grass. The larger turtles sat for a moment on submerged grass before quickly diving into the water.

It was an educational afternoon for all; and for some a welcomed homecoming.

For information about Spotila’s research see www.leatherback.org or www.goldringmarinestation.org.  

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