By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Vacationers aren’t the only ones having a great summer in Sea Isle City.
Female diamondback terrapins emerge from the marshlands during summer to search for nesting places as part of a perilous journey that takes them across busy roads and often leads to deadly encounters with traffic.
But this summer appears to be an ultra-successful nesting season that includes an extraordinarily high number of diamondbacks being rescued instead of ending up crushed on the road, according to one turtle expert.
“I’ve been involved with this for about 12, 13 years and this was the busiest season that I’ve ever experienced,” said Steve Ahern, co-founder with his wife, Susan, of the Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue organization.
The Aherns do exactly what the name of their organization implies – they go out in search of diamondback terrapins in Sea Isle and Strathmere that are in need of rescuing from the roads, storm drains and other hazardous places for turtles.
Overall, Ahern made 684 turtle rescues this summer in Sea Isle and Strathmere, compared to 473 in 2021.
“I experienced 50 percent more live turtles this year than the previous busiest season,” Steve Ahern said. “That is awesome.”
Early in the nesting season, he rescued 129 turtles in just one day on June 8. On June 28, he rescued another 122 diamondbacks. Those figures were more than double the 60 turtles he rescued during his busiest day in other years.
“I would see one turtle and would turn around and see another one five feet away. There was almost an army of turtles coming out from everywhere at once,” he said of his 129 rescues on June 8.
Ahern believes that with so many diamondbacks crossing the roads at the same time, drivers became more aware of them and took special care to avoid running them over.
“I think it helps when motorists see so many of them crossing the road,” he said.
Although he is not certain, Ahern speculated that milder winters at the shore may be an important environmental factor leading to more turtles showing up during nesting season. Without extended periods of dangerously cold weather, both the adult and baby turtles are less likely to freeze to death, he explained.
“We do see peaks and valleys. I’m hoping that it’s a trend upward,” he said. “Maybe it’s the result of not having colder winters. But it could also mean that more older turtles are nesting.”
Generally, the turtle nesting season runs from late May or early June to late July. Ahern said he saw his first diamondback this summer on June 3 and his last on Aug. 4.
The one on Aug. 4 was the latest date he has ever spotted a diamondback, suggesting that the nesting season was longer this summer because of a proliferation of turtles.
“It was a different season in that the turtles came out en masse at certain times,” Ahern said.
Ahern noted that the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor had a diamondback terrapin sighting on Aug. 2, the latest date ever recorded by the facility that is devoted to studying and protecting coastal ecosystems and wildlife.
In an age-old ritual of nature, the diamondbacks emerge from the brackish waters of their marshland habitat in summer to search for sandy soil in which to lay their eggs.
They often must cross the local roads separating the marshlands and nesting areas. The number of crushed turtle shells littering the roads each summer offer grim evidence of just how dangerous nesting season can be for the diamondbacks.
Ahern said diamondbacks can live to be 30 to 35 years old if they are lucky enough to make it into adulthood. But they face incredibly long odds of survival. Only about one hatched egg in 1,000 becomes an adult, he noted.
On July 24, Steve and Susan Ahern organized an educational event attended by hundreds of people – a record turnout – to release 30 baby diamondback terrapins into the marshlands of Sea Isle’s back bay.
“People were much more aware and much more interested in the turtles than in previous years,” he said of the big crowds that showed up July 24.
Some of the 30 baby diamondbacks that were released were hatched from eggs recovered from females killed in the road. Others were male turtles rescued from storm drains and kept at Stockton University before they were ready to be set free in the marsh, Ahern said.
The importance of turtles in Sea Isle is underscored by the “Watch for Turtles” and “Turtle X-ing” signs that are scattered around town to remind motorists to be careful about the diamondbacks lumbering across the road.
Ahern praised the person or persons who placed yellow “Watch for Turtles” signs along the road in Strathmere this summer to make drivers more aware of the diamondbacks. He believes those signs cut down on the number of turtle fatalities.
“When the signs went up, the number of kills went down,” he said. “Those signs, to me, made a huge amount of difference.”
Coming up, Sea Isle City’s Environmental Commission is looking to buy 100 yellow “turtle crossing” signs that will be distributed to homeowners in Sea Isle and Strathmere. The new signs will be sold to homeowners for $10 each, the same amount the commission will pay for them, Ahern said.
There are already safety measures in place for turtles along Sea Isle Boulevard, the main gateway into town. When the boulevard was elevated in 2019 to protect traffic from flood waters seeping out of the surrounding marshlands, mesh fencing was installed underneath the guardrails to block turtles from entering the road.
However, there were some spots where the turtles were able to get through the fencing this summer and crawled out on the boulevard. Predictably, some were killed.
Ahern said an inspection was conducted last week of the areas where the dead turtles were found to see if there were breaches in the fencing. A report will be sent to Cape May County, which oversees the boulevard, to see if any repairs are needed.