Frozen Diamondback Terrapin Rescued from Near Certain Death in Wellfleet Harbor


Rescued Female Diamondback Terrapin #2102

Tragedy turned into dramatic rescue for a threatened diamondback terrapin yesterday, February 20th, on the Outer Cape.  Applause goes to a very conscientious Wellfleet shellfisherman who made all the right moves to ensure the animal’s survival and to an extremely responsive Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary that kicked into action when the call came.  In combination, they saved the life of a mature female terrapin from near certain death in the still frigid conditions of Wellfleet Harbor.  As a bonus, this turtle was an old friend whose rescue added significant scientific detail to our three decade longitudinal study of terrapin populations on Cape Cod.

The call reached Mass Audubon‘s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary around 4 o’clock.  Clint Austin, a Wellfleet shellfisherman, had been harvesting in low-tide drained Chipman’s Cove off Wellfleet Harbor.  Emptied of water, the winter bottom of the cove consists of “black mayonnaise,” an oozy mixture that more than justifies its name, atop a thick, frozen substrate that has been under ice for more than a month.  In the summer, it’s hard to find any bottom under the black ooze that mimics the sucking quicksand scenes from every Saturday matinee Tarzan adventure. 


Terrapin Under Thin Layer of “Black Mayonnaise”

Terrapins brumate (the reptilian equivalent of hibernating) in Chipman’s Cove, as well as other estuaries throughout Wellfleet Bay.  As winter lengthens and the ground freezes, they squirm deeper and deeper into the insulating ooze to avoid freezing.  Unfortunately, the 15-foot tidal range between lowest low and highest high tide leaves these estuaries and coves exposed and vulnerable to storms and the scraping of icebergs that drag through the black mayonnaise like ploughs.  And there’s always the unlucky terrapin that chooses just the wrong spot.  So, in February’s thaw as the ice sheet begins to melt, a few terrapins become unearthed from their hibernacula by these forces and succumb to freezing temperatures.


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Frozen Female Terrapin Rescued from Chipman’s Cove

Fortunately, Wellfleet shellfishermen go out to harvest during these breaks in the ice and many keep a sharp lookout for the harbor’s signature reptile as they gather clams and oysters.  Clint did more than maintain a sharp lookout.  He found the terrapin just beneath the surface in the oozy middle of Chipman’s Cove.  Clint had the foresight to mark the spot with a thin white tube before he called into the Sanctuary with the report of his discovery.  Without that marking, the chance of finding this vulnerable turtle again would have been nil.  To the contrary, following his directions and locating the marker, we discoverd Terrapin #2102 under a fine layer of black mayonnaise with just her bright rear marginals showing.


Ice-Cold Female Terrapin Unearthed from Brumation

How cold was she?  This turtle was so cold to the touch that my fingers nearly froze through my gloves as I carried her back to the car.  We instantly recognized her markings and remembered her from her nesting run on Lieutenant Island’s 5th Avenue this last summer.

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Cold-Stunned Terrapin Returning to Life in Rehab

Back at Turtle Journal Central, the process of gradually returning Terrapin #2102 to life began.  We slowly raised her body temperature through the night, as we began to clean off layers of frozen ooze.  When she started to act normally, we took weights and measurements to compare with her last observations on June 22nd, 2008.  Clearly, she had enjoyed a very good summer because she had gained 90 grams and added about .25 centimeter to all her linear dimensions in just a few short months.


Terrapin #2102 4.5 Mile Trek from Brumation to Nesting Site

Interesting from the standpoint of terrapin movement within Wellfleet Bay was a comparison of her brumation site with her nesting location.  While Terrapin #2102 brumates in Chipman’s Cove to the north in the winter and had been observed previously in the Chipman’s Cove mating aggregation in the spring, she nests on the south side of Lieutenant Island, a trek of 4.5 miles one way.  Observations of terrapins that deposit two clutches annually in Wellfleet Harbor show that they return to their mating aggregation between nests.  For Terrapin #2102 that would involve 18 miles each year for the two 9-mile roundtrips.  Not bad for a non-migratory species!

Cheers to Clint Austin!  Cheers to Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary!  And good luck to Terrapin #2102.

5 Responses to “Frozen Diamondback Terrapin Rescued from Near Certain Death in Wellfleet Harbor”

  1. Amy Diamant says:

    Winters in Wellfleet, summers on Lt. Island, what a smart terrapin!! I loved this story and I learn a lot from your wonderful postings and videos.

    My granddaughter (age 2) and I were walking around Fox Island last fall and saw a gorgeous box turtle (I think!) sunning on the edges of the marsh. She wanted to grab it and “take it home and be it’s friend.” I said no, and told her I’d show her other turtles at the Sanctuary if she stopped crying and let the poor thing live in it’s “own home where it belongs”!! It worked and it was one of many opportunities I’ll have to show here all the wonders there and on websites like this one. Thanks, “Mima”

  2. [...] nightly freezes, these critters face certain death unless they are discovered and rescued.  (See Frozen Diamondback Terrapin Rescued from Near Certain Death in Wellfleet Harbor from February [...]

  3. [...] another frozen female terrapin had been rescued from Chipman’s Cove in late February (see Frozen Diamondback Terrapin Rescued from Near Certain Death in Wellfleet Harbor).  This turtle, #2102, is fully recovered and waiting impatiently to be released once waters in [...]

  4. [...] Hurray!  The Turtle Journal team released terrapin #2102, a cold-stunned female discovered in Chipman’s Cove in late February by shellfisherman Clint Austin.  After two months of rehabilitation at Turtle Journal Central, she appeared eager to resume her place in the wild.  So, on Saturday the 18th, we brought #2102 to the Outer Cape and reintroduced her to Chipman’s Cove, a decidedly more welcoming place than when we found her as a winter ice cube.  See Frozen Diamondback Terrapin Rescued from Near Certain Death in Wellfleet Harbor. [...]

  5. Jeff says:

    I have a Red Eared Slider (turtle) as a pet. He got left outside on the porch last night by accident. And it got down to 32 degrees. When I realized what I had done this morning I ran outside & pulled the little guy out of the ice. And brought him inside. Holding him between my hands he started to slowly come back to life. And he is now moving all of his limbs & neck. I just hope he’s alright in the long run.