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

The Doctor’s In — 30 May 2002

Doctor Ralph Werner from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey is conducting a study of the parasite load on terrapin populations throughout their habitat range.  Associated with Roger Wood’s Terrapin Conservation Program at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, NJ, Ralph decided to begin the 2002 season with a house call on the northernmost diamondback terrapins in the world just as they’re wakening from a long winter’s sleep.

When dealing with an elusive aquatic species, you can’t always produce patients on demand for the doctor to examine, but we did promise him some exciting adventures in the field as he tried to track down his own research subjects.  So, at oh-dark-hundred (5:30 a.m. civilian time) Tuesday morning, after his long holiday drive from New Jersey to Cape Cod, we kicked off the day wading the low-tide of Blackfish Creek in search of turtles.  He quickly perfected the lacrosse-like skill of netting turtles as they’re flushed through the murky rapids at the pace of speeding bullets.

After examinations and field processing and lab workups, there was little time to breathe before phase two of the Great Turtle Adventure: stalking terrapins by kayak in Chipman’s Cove.  Here we experience a completely different technique from Blackfish Creek.  Turtles are located in a large, protected inlet where they forage and pair in preparation for the nesting season, which begins in two short weeks.  You cruise along the shoreline, with your long-pole dip-net delicately balanced between your legs and serving as an auxiliary windsock sail, in water depths from four feet to inches, scanning the bottom for turtles.  Once one (or more) is located, you nimbly juggle the paddle across the cockpit and firmly grip the long-pole net.  Then, at the perfect instant, you thrust the net downward with a steady, sure motion, and when the gods smile you swoop out a terrapin before it departs for parts deep and dark and secret and inaccessible.  (The other possible outcome is that your pole thrust tips the kayak's delicate stability, and the turtler turtles the boat.)  Well, that's the theory anyway, and with a little practice and a whole lot of patience (pun intended), by the second day Ralph had become an expert turtler.

During his three day visit, we captured and examined 68 turtles from two distinct terrapin populations: 62 from Wellfleet on the Cape Cod Bay side and 6 from Pleasant Bay on the Atlantic Ocean shore of Cape Cod.  The Wellfleet Bay turtles came from two estuaries: 44 out of Chipman’s Cove in the northeast and 18 from Blackfish Creek in the south.  The demographics ranged from 3-year-old juveniles to ancient turtles aged beyond the reckoning of this researcher.  In both locations we captured a good number of pre-pubescent terrapins (see photo array below), still easily and definitively “ageable.”  In all, a very nicely distributed set of specimens to meet every hope for Ralph’s visit.  And to peg the satisfaction meter into the “exceeds expectation” zone, we even managed to provide a striped bass to nail one of his final casts on the last, fog-shrouded morning in Blackfish Creek.

While everyone even the turtles seemed to enjoy Ralph’s visit to the Cape, I thought it a bit presumptuous when he instructed the terrapins on a regime of limbering exercises, so that they could nimbly avoid capture in the future.  (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Hogan)