Steve and Susan Ahern, of Sea Isle City, spent a considerable amount of time this fall peering into storm drains, looking for baby diamondback terrapins that tumbled in after hatching, on their way to the salt marsh.
"We go out every other day," said Steve Ahern, a semi-retired Pennsylvania attorney who moved to Sea Isle City three years ago with wife Susan, a retired school nurse.
They formed the volunteer group, Sea Isle Terrapin Rescue.
They target an area from Landis Avenue west to the Bay, from 29th Street to 75th Street.
The rescued babies are placed in foster care over the winter for "head-start" treatment of living under lights and being fed constantly. Sea Isle City second- and third-graders will head-start six of the 56 hatchlings rescued this fall, he said. Lower Township students at Teitleman Middle School will do the same for the other 49.
"We try to get them as big as 3-year-olds (over one winter). We feed like crazy, use a special light, and we don't let them hibernate," Ahern said. They will be released in May or June.
Diamondback terrapins are the world's only turtle that spends its entire life in coastal marshes' brackish water. They have a lot stacked against their ability to reproduce. The females come out of the wetlands to lay eggs in May, June and July, when thousands are killed on roadways in southern New Jersey.
Their nesting areas in sand dunes above the high tide line have been developed, and predators including raccoons, foxes and cats patrol those areas that remain. Crab pots can trap and kill the adults, according to literature from the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor.
The Aherns leaned about the storm-drain problem when volunteering with the Wetlands Institute, and from Joe Grottola, a school-based youth services coordinator for Lower Cape May Regional High School.
Grottola and wife Lisa Roselli, and marine biology teachers Karl Toft and Jeff Martin, lead a crew of 120 students from the high school. They have rescued terrapins from storm drains in Wildwood Crest for 12 years, and last spring Grottola said they saved 851 turtles from storm drains in Wildwood Crest.
"The amount that come out in fall is small compared to hatchlings that winter and come out in spring," Ahern said. "We're expecting a 10-fold increase (in the spring) and are looking for additional volunteers."
Those that are rescued right before summer are treated a little differently, he said. They are fed for about a week and then released.
The Aherns also are working with the Sea Isle City Environmental Commission to install more fencing along roadways to keep turtles from being hit by cars.
"We are always looking for volunteers to help us erect turtle fencing, make cages to cover nests and rescue hatchlings from storm drains," said Ahern, who recently completed the New York City Marathon, where he raised $1,500 for the Wetlands Institute.
To help the Aherns in Sea Isle City, call 609-263-7358. To learn more about helping terrapins in general, call the Wetlands Institute at 609-368-1211, or visit www.wetlandsinstitute.org
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