What athe turtle fears

The Journey across coastal roads often proves deadly for many terrapins but new efforts may help save them

Shore Stories


REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. -- Living life in a shell, Lucky wasn't used to all the attention.

As tourists poked, petted and photographed her, the old girl - judging from the barnacles on her back, she'd been around a while - squirmed impatiently, not realizing how good she had it.

Diamondback terrapins along Delaware's coast face fates far worse than being a prop in a science presentation, and Lucky's short and involuntary appearance at Delaware Seashore State Park helped her avoid the most common: being crushed by a car on Coastal Highway.

Lucky is not her real name. She doesn't have one. But it's an apt moniker for a turtle that has survived so long on a stretch of coastline where female terrapins leave the bay and cross four lanes of 50-mph traffic to lay eggs in the sandy dunes on the beach side.

Several times each summer, they cross over, lay their eggs and make the journey back, traffic permitting.

Often, it doesn't.

More than 100 terrapins are killed each year on Delaware's Coastal Highway. The results can be seen on the roadside, where, as part of the effort to keep track of the deaths, carcasses, once counted, are spray-painted a fiery pink. Like a chalk outline at a homicide scene, the glowing silhouette remains long after the corpse is gone.

The diamondback terrapin may be Maryland's state reptile, but their plight here - as elsewhere on the Atlantic coast - serves as a textbook example of how humans, in the name of progress, make a colossal mess of nature, and the lengths they will go to to try to make up for it.

From Bethany Beach to Rehoboth Beach, scores of volunteers patrol the highway, also known as state Route 1, scouting for turtles that need help crossing the road. Some volunteers, legend has it, have gone so far as to help a terrapin across, wait while she lays her eggs in the dunes, then escort her back.

They patrol on foot, on bicycles and, in the case of Kim Hubley, a retired hairdresser from Dagsboro, Del., by car. Three times a week, she cruises up and down the highway - though so far, all the turtles she has spotted have been dead.

"I really want to get a live one and help it across," she said last week, stopping her car nearly as soon as she started. She trained her binoculars on an osprey nest atop a wooden tower that rose from the marsh. "They had to build those because we cut all the natural stuff down," she said.

The volunteers - a mix of long-time wildlife lovers and soft-hearted novices - are coordinated by the Center for the Inland Bays in Lewes, Del. The nonprofit agency is part of the federal government's National Estuary Program, which protects and restores natural habitat in those bodies of water where salt and fresh water meet.

Rescue efforts

The center has taken on the task of tallying dead terrapins and, for the first time this year, is trying to save the eggs of roadkill, rushing them back to an incubator. The first two batches didn't make it.

Meanwhile, the state and the center are working to increase public awareness: Road signs warn drivers to watch for turtles. Information cards are on display at state parks, depicting a terrapin with the caption "Please don't run over me!" And informational programs, like the one Lucky ended up in, teach vacationers about the species and the threats it faces.

As a result, it's not unusual to see three or more drivers stopping to assist a single turtle in crossing the highway - a journey whose odds of success have never been calculated.

"My guess if she makes it once, she's not going to be lucky enough to make it a second time," said Chris Bennett, management specialist for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

To reduce fatalities, the state has installed 2-foot high black silt fencing on the bay side of Delaware Seashore State Park, constructed man-made dunes so terrapins might stay on that side to nest and, as part of a bridge construction project at Indian River Inlet, is installing culverts under the highway large enough to permit terrapins to pass through. The state hopes to install cameras at each end to monitor whether the turtles use the tunnels.

The efforts have made a difference. The number of adult female terrapins killed on the road has dropped each of the last three years, from 75 in 2003, to 44 in 2004, to 27 last year.

The total number of turtle deaths on the highway, however, has changed little. In 2003, 121 were killed; last year, 120; and many of those were hatchlings and juveniles who, after being born on the beach side, still have to make it back to the bay.

"It's tough for them around here," environmental educator Lisa Tossey told a group of parents and children, most of them vacationers, at the Indian River Lifesaving Station Wednesday. She brought out Lucky, who had been found that morning at a nearby campground, and placed her on a picnic table.

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