At the Wetlands Institute, the gathering of kindergartners to release diamondback terrapins into the marshes has become as much of a tradition as the movement and migration of the turtles themselves.
Students at Stone Harbor Elementary School, which includes children from Stone Harbor and Avalon, took to the water Thursday outside the Wetlands Institute in Middle Township to release terrapins that had been raised in captivity back into the wild.
It's a tradition that began in June 1991 and has continued ever since.
"It creates an awareness that they can have some effect on the environment," said Roger Wood, director of research at the Wetlands Institute.
The activities were the culmination of a program Wood begins in September, when he brings turtles into the classroom to start educating students about the terrapins, the only species of turtle in North America that spends its entire life in brackish, or slightly salty, water.
After showing a small container of unhatched terrapin eggs to the children, Wood explained why the turtles have to grow before they can get released again.
"We call (baby terrapins) seagull potato chips, because when they go out to sea, everyone wants to eat them," Wood said, drawing laughter from some students and shock from parents sitting around the room.
It's Wood's way of communicating the dangers terrapins face so that children can understand them.
The event is a big deal to the students, which took some parents by surprise.
"My daughter wrote me a letter asking me to come," Avalon resident Tom Dierkes said as he watched over his 6-year-old daughter, Rosa. "I really wasn't expecting something this involved."
After being greeted by Wood and the institute's mascot, Scute the turtle, children got to practice holding live turtles before putting them in the water. Once they were familiar with the turtles, the students shuffled out of the building single file toward a dock not far behind.
Of course, when things are live, anything can happen, as Dave Giulian, 6, of Stone Harbor, found out the hard way. A live turtle relieved itself on Dave three times before they were even out the door heading toward the water.
So Dave was the first student in Roberta Dean's kindergarten class to get to put his turtle into the water. He used a technique called the "turtle handshake," holding the turtle with four fingers underneath and grappling onto the top of the shell with his thumb.
Even though he did not have the best experience holding the turtle inside, Dave was still happy to participate in the event.
"We helped to save them," he said.
Escorting the students were researchers interning from colleges and universities across the country. For them, it was a chance to communicate what they are doing for the summer to people much younger than them.
Those research students have placed microchips into the turtles to follow their movement. Wood said some terrapins that kindergartners have helped release in previous years have returned to the Wetlands Institute years later.
Sarah Weber, 21, a senior biology major at St. Mary's College of Maryland, is a first-year researcher at the institute. She said she never had any opportunities like the one children got Thursday.
"I wish I did," Weber said. "I'm jealous over what they got to do."
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