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

The Law of Gravidity — 09 June 2002

Few things in this world are as predictable as the Law of Gravidity, which states that when terrapins are found full of eggs, then nesting season is about to explode.  And so this afternoon’s kayaking adventure on Chipman’s Cove yielded best evidence that tomorrow morning may see the first wave of nesters on the shores of Wellfleet Bay.

Spring weather still won’t cooperate with turtles or researchers.  Storms battered the Cape into the weekend.  Saturday, a whale watch boat out of Provincetown encountered a freak wave churned up by sustained gusts and ambulances wailed through the midday quiet.  Twenty-two people were injured, at least one with compound fractures.  Not too surprising then that I only managed to capture two turtles in yesterday’s blow, both of whom were carrying eggs.  But overnight temperatures dropped again, cloud cover set in and the winds howled.  So, even with patrols of all the major nesting areas, not a single turtle was spotted today.

This afternoon, Sunday, I wanted to get back out into the water to sample for gravidity.  Winds had backed to the south, but continued to gust in excess of 25 mph.  Cloud cover varied from 80 percent to clear as the sky changed minute by minute.  Yet, as luck would have it, while winds continued unabated, the sun took hold at the perfect moment in the tidal swing, and visibility improved just enough to net five turtles floating out with the falling tide.  These five included one male, one pre-pubescent 6-year-old female, and three mature females — all of whom were VERY gravid like pictured #1637 as she slips back into the bay.  She’s a veritable whale of a turtle, an enormous Wellfleet terrapin of 20.8 centimeters in length and weighing over 1700 grams.  Even the eggs she’s carrying are large.  And the other two mature females were equally gravid.

There would have been several more captures in Chipman’s Cove this afternoon, but just as I was netting Terrapin 1638, a seven-year-old male, the cell phone rang with an emergency call.  A fellow in Mashpee on the Upper (read: lower) Cape needed help.  He and some kids had discovered a large turtle of about “50 pounds” (sic), which was completely wrapped in line (presumably fishing filament) and a stick (presumably a make-shift pole).  “He’s in terrible shape,” said Rich at the other end of the cell phone.  “I called the MSPCA and animal control, but no one was on duty.  I called the Humane Society and they gave me your number.  Can you help?  I hate to see something so old die such a horrible death.”  So, from nearly 50 miles away in a kayak bouncing with the swells, I choreographed a delicate two step to free this large snapping turtle from the grip of a mummy’s death while attempting to preserve intact the appendages of the rescuers.  I heard Rich scream to kids and colleagues, “Be careful! Be very careful, it’s a snapper.  The man says watch out.  It’s head can reach many times farther than you think.”  Line removed, the aged turtle slipped back into his homely pond thankful that one set of kindly humans undid the damage inflicted by another significantly less-considerate one.

As I prepared my data sheets and updated the terrapin database, the 24/7 hotline rang again.  This time it was a nesting turtle about ¾ of a mile east of Connemara Cottage in the same yard where the painted hatchling appeared on 7 May (see “... With a Little Help from My Friends”).  I jumped in the jeep and sped to Sue’s cottage.  She had found a lovely 13-year-old box turtle scratching test nests to the east of her driveway between where the painted hatchling appeared and where a snapping turtle had laid its nest a week ago.  Last year on 11 June, a rare (for the Outer Cape) spotted turtle was seen crossing the road in front of this same cottage (see “Two Queens, a Princess and a Spotted Knave”).  So, her home seems to be the nexus of all non-terrapin turtles in the Land of Ooze.

Back home again, preparations are underway for tomorrow’s expected onslaught.  Fingers crossed . . . with any luck we should have nesters riding the noon high tide onto the beach.