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

Bubbles Returns in Triumph at Season’s Close
— 1 October 2002

What a spectacular day to kick off October and the final days of the 2002 field season.  A fresh westerly breeze whipped frothy caps across Wellfleet Bay and chased my kayak first into the somewhat protected Chipman’s Cove and then into the Duck Creek hurricane hole sheltered by the town pier.  With nighttime temperatures dipping into the 40s, I had hoped to net a few turtles as they wandered toward brumation, so I could assess how well prepared they were to face the soon-to-come winter chill and their six month snooze beneath the oozy bottom.

In the cove I found Terrapin 1789, a 13-year-old female captured today for the first time, and Turtle 649, a 15-year-old female whom we’ve tracked since 1998 and had already observed in the spring of 2002.  Both seemed healthy, but #649 (below) provided the better indicator of how well terrapins had done this season.  Coming out of brumation last spring she weighed 1245 grams; going into brumation this October she hit the scales at 1400 grams!   (Note her anomalous shell pattern with the extra scute at the front, right edge of the 4th vertebral.)

As the winds picked up, my kayak was driven into Duck Creek on the lee of the pier.  There I soon netted Terrapin 1113, a 9-year old female.  We had first captured her on 13 June 2001 as she basked on the mud flats at the mouth of Duck Creek.  Then a pre-pubescent female, she measured only 15.45 centimeters long and weighed 578 grams — just below the nesting threshold for Wellfleet turtles.  She had grown nearly two centimeters to 17.39 carapace length and tipped the scales at 921 grams, both numbers indicating that she had successfully completed her first nesting year in 2002.

Paddling against the ebbing current and stiff gusts, I made one last run up Duck Creek and captured a good size female hugging the edge of the mud bank.  When I drew my net from the water, an old friend emerged: Bubbles, also known as #1195.  Found critically injured on 16 October 2001, she was rushed to HSUS Cape Wildlife Center in West Barnstable, where Drs. Rachel Blackmer and Catherine Brown provided expert emergency care.  We kept her awake all last winter to encourage the healing process and released Bubbles back into the wild on 18 April 2002 (see Free At Last!)

It’s rare to get a chance to revisit a wild animal saved human intervention, especially an elusive aquatic critter such as a terrapin.  So, her capture today allowed us to assess how well she had re-adjusted to the wild after six months of captivity and medical treatment.  Numbers tell the tale.  When traumatically injured last October, she weighed 1283 grams — probably her maximum weight of the year as she prepared to enter brumation.  After a couple of months fasting and dropping considerable weight, she resumed eating in January.  Still, when she was released in April, her weight had dropped to 1115 grams.  Would she be able to resume wild foraging?  At 1373 grams, she looks plump and healthy and ready for a nice long snooze to compensate for last year’s craziness.

In the encounter with the dredge, her left bridge had been crushed, broken, and severed.  The vets had taped her back together, and by spring she had begun to re-knit the bones.  Today the wound looked remarkable.  Yes, you could still detect the trauma, but the shell was rock solidly melded together.  Turtles are amazingly resilient critters.  With just a little help from her friends, Bubbles has resumed a normal and productive terrapin life.  For us she marks a sterling example of how quick, concerted action by a team of dedicated conservationists can turn tragedy into a triumph.