By MADDY VITALE
In a few weeks, volunteers will be digging in the sand in Sea Isle City.
No, it’s not buried treasure that they’re after, but turtle eggs.
Steve and Susan Ahern, who run the Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue, along with others dedicated to preserving diamondback terrapins, will be carefully dismantling two turtle nesting boxes on the grounds behind the library at 4800 Central Avenue.
They will carefully unearth the boxes, not wanting to harm any live hatchlings that may still be there.
Turtle nesting season is from May to July when females emerge from the marshlands to lay their eggs. It can take anywhere from eight to 14 weeks for the eggs to hatch. Since the terrapins typically nest in sandy soil, such as beaches and dunes, the sandy nesting boxes give turtles a safe place to lay their eggs.
Diamondback terrapins can live for 30 to 40 years, but with roadwork, construction, shore traffic and deaths related to the fishing industry, the prospect of longevity is always a concern, Ahern noted.
Only one egg in a thousand grows up to be an adult turtle.
That is all the more reason why it is so important to find ways to protect the terrapins and the eggs, Ahern stressed. Dismantling the turtle nesting boxes is part of those efforts.
“Hopefully we will find that the eggs have hatched, and they had gone into the marsh,” Ahern said Monday of the baby turtles. “It’s a lot more fun to find the live ones. Last year we found 115 live hatchlings and another 100 eggs we felt had hatched and got out to the marsh.”
In 2017, the first year the Aherns installed the turtle nesting boxes, they didn’t find any live turtles. However, they found a lot of egg fragments underground, which, Ahern explained, gave them proof that the hatchlings were not eaten by predators.
“That year we found evidence that over 200 turtles had hatched,” he said.
The Aherns’ son, Michael, was the primary designer of a protective barrier in the nesting boxes against predators. He also supplies the materials for the boxes each year.
Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue, which is funded through the Sea Isle City Environmental Commission and receives permitting through the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, also supplies nesting cages from time to time to residents. They remove them after the eggs have hatched.
When Cape May County paid to install a protective wire mesh fencing along Sea Isle Boulevard, the Aherns and others concerned about the terrapins were elated.
“It worked out tremendously,” Ahern said.
Once construction along the boulevard was completed, the Aherns really saw a decrease in turtle deaths, on that road, than in previous years.
“We had maybe five or six killed there the whole season,” Steve Ahern noted.
Unfortunately, something good in one area entering Sea Isle did not translate to the rest of the community.
“There were more fatalities this summer in Sea Isle than in a long time. It is very hard to put your finger on why,” Ahern pointed out. “I know there was a 50 percent increase in the deaths in Sea Isle and Strathmere.”
Ahern attributed some of the deaths to increased traffic, roadwork, more houses and the construction of two new parking lots in the north end of town on Landis Avenue.
“Sea Isle and Strathmere saw about 200 turtles killed along the roadways over the season,” he said. “It is a tough balance. People were terrific about stopping and helping turtles.”
The Aherns may soon be taking down turtle nesting boxes, but their work is far from over.
“We have our own turtle fencing between 20th Street and 26th Street on Landis Avenue. It was in the best shape, but in May it was taken apart by a storm,” he said. “We need to replace the tubing because it is really effective. Turtles don’t get killed in front of that fencing. Our plan for the spring is to continue with the two turtle boxes at the library.”
For more information call Steve and Susan Ahern at (609) 263-7358.