Saving the turtles: Stockton conservation program rescues diamondback terrapins

GALLOWAY, N.J. -- Evelyn Kidd revives a part of her childhood every year.

"When you're a little kid and you find a ninja turtle, you kind of get hooked," she said.

Kidd may be in her 30s now, but she still searches through drains at the Jersey Shore for stranded baby turtles.

No larger than a quarter, these turtles will be nurtured and re-released through a conservation partnership between Stockton University and The Wetlands Institute.

"There's just so much to love about them. They're so interesting and I just want to learn more," said Heather Bariso, one of the college students who gets close and personal with these turtles.

Specifically known as Diamondback Terrapins, they are notably the only turtle species to inhabit brackish water, or a mix of both salt and freshwater.

These often leopard-speckled reptiles have diamond-shaped patterns on their shells, from which they derive their name.

"Almost like fingerprints, no two are really alike," said John Rokita, Assistant Supervisor of Academic Lab Services at Stockton. "I think they're just pretty tough animals."

Rokita cares for Evelyn Kidd's rescues along with turtles that have been struck by vehicles.

"Of course, these guys nest in the spring and summer when we have an increased flow to the beaches and shore," Rokita noted.

Through the head start program, he has been able to nurse survivors back to good health. And although it is unfortunate when a turtle is dead upon discovery, there is still potential life to be saved.

"The Wetlands Institute and Stockton University will actually take all of the eggs out of the adult female, place them in the incubator, and then they will eventually all hatch out," said Melissa Laurino, Animal Care Specialist at Stockton.

Laurino suggests slowing down or coming to a complete stop when noticing a turtle crossing the road. If it can be safely done, she recommends escorting that turtle across the road in the direction it was traveling.

Since female terrapins are the ones searching for nesting ground, they are typically the victims of hit-and-runs.

That's why Stockton incubates these eggs at 30 degrees celsius. The temperature-dependent sex of the species is more likely to be female in these conditions.

Today, the team celebrated the release of more than a dozen turtles ranging in age from young to a few years old. Evelyn Kidd was there to see the fruits of her labor for the first time in nearly 20 years.

"I've always been on the other end getting the little babies," she said. "This is the first time that I've been able to let them go."

And the spark of freedom she conferred on these creatures was unforgettable.

"I've got a huge smile under this mask," she said.

Kidd averages about 50-60 rescued turtles per year. In the future, she hopes to continue organizing groups of young children to come together and rescue even more.

To learn more about Stockton University and the Wetlands Institute's program, visit their website.

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