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Annual Terrapin Tally puts volunteers to their paddles

Diamondback terrapin.
Becky Gregory CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
US Fish & Wildlife Service
Diamondback terrapin.

Scientists want to know more about a little turtle called a diamondback terrapin- so they’ve asked regular citizens to help count them.

It’s a short ferry ride to get to Bald Head Island, a conservation area at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, where I plan to paddle around counting turtles.

This is the annual “Terrapin Tally,” a citizen science initiative.

Elena Kelly is with the Bald Head Island’s conservancy, and joined this year’s Tally. “So their shells have on each of the skutes, like the scales almost, it's like rings of light and dark and then their actual skin is light pale silvery white with polka dots on them.”

Terrapins live in the brackish waters of the intracoastal waterway, between barrier islands and the mainland. They’re small, 6 to 9 inches, and just barely poke above the waves when they come up for air.

Sarah Finn is a state biologist who helps train volunteers to spot the turtles from kayaks.

“So their heads are only a few inches long. So you're looking for just a little brief blip of a head poking out of the water and then going back down.”

Terrapins used to be really common- their range runs from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico. But Finn says they were hunted heavily in the early 20th century. “Back before the Great Depression, they were considered a delicacy item. Turtle Soup was served in the White House under President Taft.”

That changed with the Great Depression, when no one could afford to eat the reclusive turtles —and prohibition kept sherry out of restaurants. With the loss of that key ingredient in turtle soup, terrapins suddenly had some unexpected protection.

Although economic and cultural changes took turtles off American menus, the terrapin population has struggled to recover ever since. It takes generations for their populations to rebound. In North Carolina it’s now listed as a species of special concern. The state wants more data, and that’s where the volunteers come in.

Hope Sutton helped start the Terrapin Tally nine years ago when she realized how hard it would be to get the data she needed.

“In North Carolina, we have an extensive area of marsh habitat, so we're talking like 300,000 acres. So for any single researcher or small research team, that's an inconceivable number of hours to spend out there doing surveys," she said.

I only covered two-and-a-half miles in a few hours, but I was determined to see the tiny Terrapin heads popping out of the water. After nearly an hour, I got my chance.

I caught sight of a tiny black blip, 40 feet ahead of the kayak- then it popped up again. I fumbled with my phone and pulled up the Survey123 app, where the Terrapin Tally tracks data. It uses geotracking data to pinpoint sightings, and volunteers indicate numbers as well.

That was my first, and last turtle sighting for the day. But we did file another report: this one for crab pots. There were a dozen sitting on the bank, and I filed a report for them.

Heather Bariso, the environmental education technician at the Bald Head Island Conservancy, actually found five terrapins trapped in a crab pot. She heard the sound of their little claws scrabbling and went in for a rescue.

“So they'll enter hoping to get a nice meal. And then since none of these have TEDs on it, which is a Terrapin Excluder Device, that means that the terrapins can't get back out. So then they end up drowning in there," she said.

Bariso freed the little turtles, and called the marine patrol about the crab pots. In recent years, the state government has mandated TEDs on crab pots in certain areas- specifically Bald Head Island.

She also found a derelict trap rusting in the water, and brought it ashore for disposal.

Heather Bariso and Elena Kelly hold up a derelict crab pot which they removed from the waterways around Bald Head Island. The traps are dangerous for diamondback terrapins, who may drown if they get trapped in the abandoned contraptions.
Heather Bariso and Elena Kelly hold up a derelict crab pot which they removed from the waterways around Bald Head Island. The traps are dangerous for diamondback terrapins, which may drown if they get trapped in the abandoned contraptions.

With those sightings, and those from 150 other volunteers, scientists at the state have more data to track the species of concern, and know where to concentrate their conservation efforts.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.