By MADDY VITALE
Diamondback terrapins nesting season coincides with the busy summer season at the Jersey Shore.
Turtle nesting season is typically from May to August when the terrapins come out of the marsh in search of sandy soil to lay their eggs.
The journey the terrapins make to find a spot can be to lay their eggs can be treacherous. While diamondback terrapins can live up to 30 to 40 years, traffic, roadwork and the fishing industry pose dangers to their survival, experts say.
For turtle rescuers, Steve and Susan Ahern who founded Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue in 2009, the summer meant an awful lot of work to rescue and relocate terrapins to a safe area and educate the public on the importance of the turtles.
While the past two summer seasons have meant a proliferation of terrapins coming out to lay their eggs, it also meant more were exposed to deadly traffic.
“It was pretty similar to last season in terms of the number of females that came out,” Steve Ahern said in an interview. “There were more kills this season, than last season because they came out in a different pattern.”
He explained that last summer, the terrapins came out in clusters, making it easier for motorists to spot them. This summer they came out all day long.
In all, the Aherns rescued 657 turtles between Sea Isle and the neighboring community of Strathmere, compared to 684 turtles in 2022.
The start to the season was a slow one, Ahern said, mainly because June was cool.
The Fourth of July holiday proved to be more dangerous than in the previous years for female terrapins, Ahern pointed out.
The holiday was on a Tuesday, which translated into more vacationers down on a longer stretch, resulting in more traffic on the roads. There were also storms and a full moon.
“All of those things made a very difficult weekend. We had so many kills on the July 3 and on the Fourth,” Ahern said. “The kills were 20 percent more than the Fourth of July in 2022.”
Between the two turtle nesting seasons, 2023 and 2022, roughly 400 female terrapins died due to being crushed on the roadways, he said.
That figure is especially sad, since only one egg in 1,000 grows up to be an adult turtle, he said.
There were some positives that came out of the busy nesting season, in addition to more terrapins being out, Ahern said.
“I think more people were very good and cooperative about stopping. As seasons go on, it seems more people are aware of the turtles and safely get them across,” he said of motorists stopping to help the turtles. I want to thank everybody for doing that.”
The Aherns work closely with the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor.
This year, they took about a dozen injured terrapins to the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor to see if they could be saved. About half of them, Ahern said, he believed were able to be saved and rehabilitated.
One of the issues that Ahern said he hopes will be improved by next summer nesting season is the mesh fencing along Sea Isle Boulevard. There are breaches in spots giving turtles spots where they can get onto the roadway. It is a county road that serves as a gateway into Sea Isle.
A few years ago, the county installed the mesh fencing to help keep terrapins from crossing the roadway. But over the years, vegetation grew making it possible for terrapins to get over the fence.
One of the intern projects at the Wetlands Institute over the summer was to see where the breaches were and what could be done.
“I am hoping they will have some data presented to the county about where there are holes or breaches soon,” Ahern said. “I am hopeful it will be better there next year.”
As for educating the public about turtles, there were bright yellow “turtle crossing” signs sold by the Sea Isle City Environmental Commission over the year that seemed to really work well in delivering a message to the public about the terrapins being out, Ahern said.
“They sold out and people used them,” he said. “We will order more signs for next summer. People like using them and it works well.”
The Aherns work to help the turtles almost year-round. In October, they, along with volunteers, uncover hatchlings from sandy soil in nesting boxes, to deliver them to the marsh.
Several years ago they built two turtle nesting boxes at the Sea Isle City branch of the Cape May County Library system. This summer they built a third box on Landis Avenue and Second Street in Strathmere.
“The third one is small,” Ahern said. “We will try to make it bigger next year. But it worked out very good this summer.”