Fourteen tiny turtles got a grand sendoff and a leg up on very long survival odds Thursday as they were left to fend for themselves by a Westport pond.
“Be safe little guy,” a woman said as she let one of the rare diamondback terrapins loose in beach grass next to Allens Pond.
Despite assurances from a turtle expert on hand that these creatures are driven by 300 million years of evolution to stay well hidden in the grass, this one’s first free moves were straight back out onto the beach.
“He wouldn’t last long there in the open,” said Don Lewis (aka The Turtle Guy) who, with wife Sue Wieber Nourse, had watched over the terrapin eggs since they were found buried on the beach alongside Allens Pond back on June 20.
The terrapin was put back into the grass — deeper this time.
That these terrapins made it this far was a miracle in itself, said Lauren Miller-Donnelly of the Allens Pond Wildlife Refuge.
Credit sharp-eyed Pete Deichman of Dartmouth for giving them their first big break. A coastal watershed monitor, he was out checking on piping plovers that day back in June when he glimpsed something that is rarely seen — a terrapin laying her eggs in the sand.
“That almost never happens here,” Ms. Miller-Donnelly said — the last time was about seven years ago. “They are so secretive. Usually if you see one they just run off and hide … You think a turtle is slow — these things are fast if you catch them out in the open. They see you and they sprint.”
Mr. Deichman took note of the location and alerted Mr. Lewis and Ms. Wieber Nourse who set out from Wareham. After dark, they set out to find the nest.
“Even though he knew just where to look, it wasn’t easy,” Ms. Wieber Nourse said. The mother had covered her tracks well.
The eggs and that sand were reburied in the couple’s backyard turtle garden for the 82 days until hatching.
Out there on that beach, Mr. Lewis said the terrapins’ chances of survival would have been about zero, worse even than usual.
The mother — “an old girl, blind in one eye” —had buried her eggs on beach that frequently washes over, an event that would almost certainly have destroyed the nest, he said.
Odds that any egg will someday produce an adult terrapin are astronomically slim anyway. Mr. Lewis said that 95 percent of nests are lost, mostly to a long list of predators — gulls, raccoons, skunks, crows, foxes, coyotes, cats and many more. Of the terrapins that do manage to hatch, only about one in 1,000 will make it to adulthood.
“These gorgeous, exquisite babies still face enormous odds to become adults but we have at least given them a chance,” he said as the 14 were removed from the plastic pie plate in which they had been driven from Wareham.
The terrapins squirmed in hands as they were posed for pictures. Spectators gasped as one fell to the ground.
“Don’t worry, they are little but they are tough — have to be,” he said.
The eggs, Mr. Lewis said, had hatched on “lucky (Sept.) Friday the 13th” and the hatchlings had been given a few days to hydrate before being let loose.
Each is born with a yolk sac on its bottom shell which will provide it with the food it needs for these first few months.
“That’s key,” Mr. Lewis said. “It means they can spend this time in hiding — don’t have to go out looking for food.” When the weather gets cold, they’ll bury themselves in the mud and sleep until spring.
They won’t be much bigger then and will then have to find food. “They eat pretty much anything that is small enough and slow enough to catch,” he said.
Those that survive to year three will be about the size of a hockey puck and, with tough shells, safer from the dangers around them. Big females may reach over 7 inches in length.
As the procession hiked from the wildlife refuge out to where the eggs had been laid back in June, Mr. Lewis said terrapins face a struggle for survival here.
They are listed as ‘threatened’ in Massachusetts (‘endangered’ in Rhode Island) but the situation at Allens Pond is probably worse than the ‘threatened’ status suggests. He said Massachusetts numbers are skewed upward because of an unusually healthy colony in Wellfleet on Cape Cod.
“I’d guess — and this is just a guess — that there might be 100 of them in this whole (Allens Pond) ecosystem. It’s a depressed population.”
“Terrapins are a bellwether species,” an indicator on the health of things in general. Perhaps the only good news is that the terrapins’ population decline seems to have leveled off in some places.
Part of their problem is that they only live in brackish waters — can’t live in fresh water or salt. “And those places are under a lot of pressure.”
“Who wants to let one go?” Mr. Lewis asked the group once the release point had been reached.
Hands went up and the 14 were doled out.
Unlike sea turtles he said, which make a made dash in the same direction toward the light of the sea and horizon, “these guys will go all over the place … the drunkard’s walk. So be careful not to step on one.”
“Good-bye,” a girl told hers as she crouched and watched it take a few steps into the grass. “Be careful.”