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Don Lewis, Massachusetts Audubon Society,
Fox Island Wildlife Management Area

Reprieve — 12 October 2001

Southwest winds offered a brief summer interlude.  Thermometers flirted with the high 70s, and after three days of mild weather, even water temperatures over the tidal flats rose to the mid 60s.  At least a half dozen late nests hatched today on Lieutenant Island, leaving lines and swirls of baby terrapin tracks in the sand, meandering toward the marsh.  With such a glorious afternoon at hand, I loaded the jeep with kayak and gear and trucked into town to paddle around Shirttail Point into the oozy mud flats of Duck Creek.

Low tide left only inches of water over the black mayonnaise bottom.  Each stroke smeared the oars in muck and paddling felt like running in slow motion through quick sand.  I spotted a single male terrapin snorkeling off the muddy banks of Duck Creek.  None basked on the flats and no other heads surfaced for air while I gently wafted eastward with the breeze.  Clearly, most turtles were not fooled by today’s moderation and decided to remain snugly burrowed in for the duration.

With so few turtles active, it seemed unlikely that I would have an opportunity to net one.  I headed back to the point to beach my kayak and call it a day.  But as I approached the edge of the pier (left in the photo above), I saw a large female lounging on the surface, head stretched to the sky, baking in the bright sunshine.  A hundred feet ahead, so I rested my paddle and let the current drift the kayak toward her.  She watched me approach.  At 50 feet, she slowly submerged, and I waited.

About two minutes later, she rose again and floated her carapace on the surface to maximize heat absorption.  I drew closer and she kept a lazy eye fixed in my direction.  Finally, within about 10 feet, she decided it was time to leave.  She didn’t disappear with a snap of her enormous rear feet as terrapins do in the summer.  Instead, she exhaled and let gravity pull her under.

Now, I certainly don’t want to downplay the lightning reflexes of this turtle researcher, who with a flick of his wrist snagged Terrapin 1194 in the net.  But it is a simple truth of nature that summer equals advantage for a turtle, and fall gives a decided edge to the warm-blooded critter in the kayak.

There may be another explanation ( there always is).  I think captured turtles have spread the word about the soothing ride they receive in the netting hammock, as it sways to and fro during the trip to shore.  It may be a strange orientation to the terrapin world, but they do seem to enjoy the experience.

Terrapin 1194 measured 19.3 centimeters long and weighed 1260 grams.  Her shell was too smooth to yield an age, but she has not yet assumed the “shoe box” shape of more ancient females.  She probably was born in the mid-1980s.

One distinctive mark was a large, deep gash across the right side of her carapace.  It extends from the marginals, shattering her right front costal.  The wound is well healed and may have been caused by a boat strike.  But today, #1194 is a healthy, well-nourished terrapin who appears quite prepared for the winter ahead.