By MADDY VITALE
Each year diamondback terrapins are uncovered from sandy nesting boxes in Sea Isle City. A group of volunteers, headed by Steve and Susan Ahern, of the Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue organization, spend an October day digging in the sand to unearth tiny turtles.
On Saturday, hundreds of hatchlings, 365 to be precise, were carefully and gently dug up from the nesting boxes on Central Avenue, overlooking the marshlands behind the library, and released into the marsh.
“We have uncovered hundreds of turtles, so we are very happy with the results,” Steve Ahern said. “We feel like we are coming up with somewhat of a solution to keep the turtles off of the streets and have them go to nesting boxes where they are safe.”
Female diamondback terrapins emerge from their coastal marshlands habitat in search of a patch of sandy soil for a nesting area to lay their eggs from May through about July each year.
Nesting boxes give turtles an alternative place to lay their eggs. They are not in harm’s way near roads and there is a gate designed to keep out predators.
The terrapins found Saturday did not include those that hatched and left the nest on their own, Steve Ahern noted. He said that there were remnants of shells and other proof that there were more turtles in the nesting boxes.
Children showed excitement throughout the morning when they made their finds.
“I found some!” and “I named her Rebecca!” were some of the responses. Some children gently placed the terrapins into bins and counted them.
Susan Ahern had the children line up with their terrapins to release them in an area of marshlands behind the library on 48th Street.
Later in the afternoon, the volunteers were planning to go to another section of the marsh to release more terrapins, Susan Ahern said.
Longtime volunteers Jeff Lawson, of Dennis Township, Steve Hepding, of Upper Township, and Brenda Dale, of the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, pitched in, along with about 10 Sea Isle City Girl Scout Troop 41012 members and others in the community.
Lawson said he and his son got involved with the terrapin rescue a few years ago.
“It all started because my son needed credit for a community service project,” Lawson noted. “I just kept doing it. I like helping the turtles.”
Dale said that she met the Aherns because she teaches marine science camp in Sea Isle over the summer.
“It’s important,” she said, adding that she enjoys helping out with the turtle hatchlings.
Girl Scout Troop leader Kristy Pittaluga, of Sea Isle, said she and the children were excited about the opportunity to help out.
She said the Aherns spoke with them about a few terrapin-related projects they could do to help out over the fall and winter.
“Steve let us know about a couple of projects we can do to help prepare for the spring terrapin season,” Pittaluga said.
The Girl Scouts will make “terrapin crossing” yard signs and also covers to put over nests.
Diamondback terrapins can live for 30 to 40 years, but with roadwork, construction, shore traffic and deaths related to the fishing industry, longevity is always a concern.
The terrapins have not been listed as threatened or endangered in New Jersey, but they are listed as decreasing. Only one egg in a thousand grows up to be an adult turtle.
The dismally small number of those that survive makes the Aherns work even harder to help save the terrapins.
Each year the Aherns host the turtle releases in the fall and spring, except in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Steve Ahern described Saturday’s discoveries as “very good” compared to prior years.
“It’s a very good day, it really is. Every time we get hundreds to release, it is just great,” he said.
Over the years, the Aherns have worked with the county, the community and the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor to help create safer conditions for the terrapins.
A couple of years ago the county installed metal fencing along Sea Isle Boulevard, which has helped keep turtles from crossing the roadway, where many have been crushed.
Susan Ahern said the 2021 nesting season was successful, but she and her husband, along with the volunteers, are already thinking about next year.
“We will talk about projects and what we have to do,” she said. “We will probably start up again in March.”
For more information about Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue or to reach Steve and Susan Ahern, call (609) 263-7358.