Stone Harbor Elementary School kindergartners Fiona Gale, 6, and Neysha Vazquez, 5, both of Cape May Court House, walked to the edge of the bay at 57th Street in Avalon, each holding a small diamondback terrapin in one hand.
"This is where they're going to live now," Wetlands Institute staff member Ben Atkinson said of the turtles. "They've never been here before and they're about to embark on a new life, so we have to wish them a happy and safe sendoff."
Atkinson then scanned the two turtles, which were electronically coded, and watched as the girls bent down by the water and set them free, waving goodbye until two tiny terrapins swam out of view.
"If they're ever found again we will know that they were released right here, today, by your class," he said.
The rest of their classmates came over, two at a time, to select a terrapin from a big container and set it free in the bay.
Atkinson, who is the coastal conservation research program deputy director at the Wetlands Institute, said the reason the institute gets children involved with its terrapin release project is to teach young people the importance of protecting diamondback terrapins, which too often become roadkill.
"At the very least, we hope these kids will grow up to be part of the population of people who look out for and stop for turtles crossing the road," he said.
Stone Harbor Elementary School's kindergarten class has been participating in the turtle release program for more than 20 years. The event is held in partnership with the Wetlands Institute and the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway Township, Atlantic County.
"It's something our kids look forward to, even if they aren't in kindergarten anymore - they want to know all about the terrapin project," said Stacey Tracy, Stone Harbor superintendent. Tracy also released a turtle May 30, and she nicknamed it Derek Jeter.
The Wetlands Institute and Richard Stockton College have had active terrapin conservation programs for many years, which includes volunteers driving around to look for dead turtles that were hit by cars, taking their unbroken eggs to incubate and raise. Stockton's students and staff then care for the babies at the college until they are big enough to be released into their natural habitats, at about 1½ years old.
Tracy released the last turtle of the day. As she did, the kindergarten students lined up by the edge of the bay and watched.
"Goodbye, Derek Jeter," they all yelled.
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