by Wendy Mitman Clarke
photos by Vince Lupo
illustrations by Kim Harrell
There seems to be wisdom in a sea turtle's eyes, and in the deepness of its breathing. I like to think of them as the zen masters of the ocean animal kingdom, peaceful journeyers full of secrets and mysteries and quite possibly possessed of a wry sense of humor. Standing here in the parking lot of the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Ocean City, Md., I imagine all these qualities in the turtle that's looking back at me from within a padded wooden crate, the muted morning sunlight glinting off its weathered carapace. The last time I saw this Kemp's ridley turtle--the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world--she was swimming in an isolation tank at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, recovering from surgery to remove a fish hook embedded deep in her throat. That day, as I peered over the tank's edge, the turtle swam right up to me, surfacing to take my measure with those old-soul eyes. Today I sense one more thing there: Readiness.
On the turtle's back, attached with five-minute epoxy, is a transmitter about six inches long and three inches high. The people at the aquarium who have been caring for the turtle (who's been named Geddy) know very little about where she had been before she was found in a waterman's pound net off Hooper Island in the Chesapeake Bay three months ago. They hope that after they release her here today the transmitter will show them where she's going, at least for a while.
One thing they do know: Geddy is not the first sea turtle that has explored the Chesapeake Bay in its wide-ranging travels, nor is she the first to come to grief here. About a month and a half after Geddy was found last June, an injured loggerhead turtle was found in another pound net, also near Hooper Island. Its right front flipper was nearly severed by fishing line that had wrapped around it and cut off its blood supply. Surgeons at the aquarium had to amputate the flipper, but the loggerhead (named Ed) recovered and was released off North Carolina's Ocracoke Island last November.
Many people who boat on the Bay tend to think of its underwater inhabitants as estuarine dwellers: crabs, oysters, that sort of thing. Every now and then an obvious ocean traveler such as a whale will visit and make headlines for being an exciting anomaly, but with the exception of dolphins and sharks that frequent the southern Bay in summer, we usually don't associate the Bay with the sea (unless we do our boating in, say, Cape Charles, Va.). This is parochial and shortsighted, of course, as the mostly hidden but regular visits of thousands of sea turtles would remind us; we are connected to a larger world.
As many as 15,000 sea turtles enter the Chesapeake each spring when water temperatures rise. The majority are juvenile loggerheads and Kemp's ridleys, although leatherbacks, green sea turtles and the rare hawksbill also come here to feast on crustaceans, jellyfish and grasses.
The presence of most of these ocean travelers goes unnoticed by the majority of us, and in some respects that's a good thing. When they do encounter humans, it's usually bad for the turtles. Whether through recreational fishermen catching turtles by accident and being unable to release them properly, entanglement in discarded fishing line or nets, or being injured or killed by boat propellers, the Bay can be a hazardous place for sea turtles.
They'll be arriving soon now-by late spring, when water temperatures start climbing past 64 degrees and when boaters begin taking to the Bay's waters in droves. Perhaps it's worth looking at one turtle's story, to give boaters and fishermen a better understanding of whom they're sharing the Bay with this summer.
There's a lot about Geddy that scientists and veterinarians at the aquarium couldn't know for certain-the turtle's gender, for instance. Until a sea turtle is about 20 years old, you can't determine its gender visually, Jose Barrios told me as we watched Geddy gnaw on a crab he had tossed into the isolation tank. Barrios, ocean health program manager for the aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP), said Geddy was a fairly large Kemp's ridley, which is one of the smallest species of sea turtle. Full grown they're about two feet long and can weigh up to 100 pounds; Geddy's carapace is about 20 inches long and 20 inches wide, though when she arrived at the aquarium she weighed only 29 pounds. Based on the scratches on the back of her shell-possibly made from a male while mating-and the shape and size of the turtle's claws and tail, Barrios believed this was a female.
They couldn't know where she had been, either, but they could pretty much bank on where she hatched. Kemp's ridley's are the world's most endangered sea turtles because, until recently, they nested only on one beach: Rancho Nuevo on the Gulf coast of Mexico. Unlike other turtles, which leave the sea one by one at night to build their nests and lay eggs under cover of darkness, Kemp's ridleys nest all at once in daylight, waiting for high surf to help bring them to shore. This mass nesting, called an "arribada," helps the turtles lay so many eggs at once that local predators simply can't eat them all, thus increasing survival rates, says John A. "Jack" Musick, a marine science professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and founder of the Virginia Sea Turtle Stranding Network. It's a good evolutionary theory, but in practice the turtles' predators-primarily coyotes and humans (who harvested the eggs for their alleged aphrodisiac qualities until Mexico began protecting the species)-still overwhelmed them. And, until recently, the turtles themselves were killed by the thousands as bycatch in shrimp trawls, although government-mandated "turtle excluder devices" have begun to help, allowing the turtles to escape before they suffocate in the nets.
In the early 1960s, there were an estimated 60,000 nesting female Kemp's ridleys. By the 1980s, only about 350 nesting females were left. In 1978, Mexico and the United States began a project to transplant eggs from Rancho Nuevo to Padre Island, Tex., to develop a second, more protected, nesting area. Between 1978 and 1988, 22,507 eggs were transplanted. In 1996, two of the hatchlings returned to nest at Padre Island, and the numbers have steadily grown; 64 nested there in 2006. The turtle's population is now estimated at 6,000, but Kemp's ridleys continue to be threatened throughout their range.
All this may seem a long way from the Chesapeake Bay. But Geddy, after hatching at Rancho Nuevo, and then hanging out in the circular Gulf of Mexico current for as long as 12 years, Musick says, then headed to Florida and the Bahamas. Eventually, she made her way up the East Coast. Some of her mates went farther north to Long Island or even Massachusetts for the summer, but Geddy came into the Bay and started feasting on the Kemp's ridley's favorite food-crabs. "The Bay is a principal feeding area that we call a developmental habitat," Musick says. "But of course they have to leave in fall because the lower temperatures are lethal."
At some point last spring, a Bay fisherman (probably baiting his hook with soft crab) caught Geddy instead of a trophy rockfish. Whether he couldn't retrieve the hook down the turtle's throat or the turtle snapped the line, the result of that encounter was Geddy swimming off with a hook deeply embedded inside her throat and a piece of leader worrying a wound into the corner of her mouth. The injuries made it hard for her to eat, and she grew weak.
Sometime early last June, the turtle wandered into a waterman's pound net off Hooper Island, which ironically may have saved her life. (Watermen aren't trying to catch turtles in their pound nets, but the turtles, once they run into the net's leader, will be channeled into the pound just as fish are. Most nets have small enough mesh that once the turtle is in the pound itself they can't get entangled and, Musick says, "they're fine, in fact they're fat and happy.")
The Hooper Island waterman, who participates in a voluntary tagging and health assessment program run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Cooperative Oxford Laboratory, that morning found three turtles in his nets. He called the DNR veterinarian, Cindy Driscoll, who immediately came to examine them. Two were fine and Driscoll quickly released them. But Geddy was obviously injured and Driscoll took her to the aquarium, where the MARP people took over.
Aquarium veterinarians and Dan Petrus of Atlantic Veterinary Internal Medicine could see the two-inch hook wedged in the turtle's esophagus, which "can turn like a 90-degree bend," Barrios told me. "It's very hard to [extract a hook] without hurting the turtle." They eventually pulled out the hook with a 16-inch de-hooking tool. Then Geddy went into the isolation tank, where Barrios introduced me to her.
I'll admit that few animals take my breath away as sea turtles do. When Geddy surfaced several times right next to me, exhaling with a wet "pfff" and inhaling deeply, gazing at me with those eyes, I wanted to climb right in with her, or at least spend a week or so just watching. She swam up and down the cylindrical 1,000-gallon isolation tank, sometimes coming to rest on the bottom, at other times circling steadily, her flippers occasionally breaking the water's surface with a soft smack.
"She's eating; that's good, very good," Barrios said, obviously pleased to see her shred a crab. "She's got a terrific sense of smell." Geddy's release back to the wild would depend entirely on whether she recovered from her injuries without any infection and whether she could gain weight and pursue and catch food without problems. When the turtle grew strong enough, the vets would move her from the isolation tank to a 98,000-gallon hospital pool, where she could continue gaining weight and strength.
"This animal, if we can rehabilitate her and get her released, could have an overall impact on the entire species," says Jenny Yates, a former aquarium spokeswoman, referring to Geddy's potential for laying thousands of eggs in her lifetime. "That's an awesome responsibility and privilege for us."
Sea turtles are elusive creatures, their pelagic lives mostly hidden from humans. The only time they come ashore alive is when they nest, and that only lasts a couple of hours. In 1979, Jack Musick at VIMS started the Virginia Sea Turtle Stranding Network in an effort to study the animals in the Chesapeake. "Before we started our work here the prevailing dogma from sea scientists was that turtles north of North Carolina were lost to the population," Musick says. "We've shown that's BS. We have turtles migrating here every year."
With the help of aerial surveys, watermen and fishermen who would call when they caught a turtle, and examinations of dead turtles found on beaches or in the water, Musick's team was able to determine what species were coming here and in what numbers-as well as when they were coming and going, what they were eating and how they were living and dying. Because sea turtles need salt water, they rarely go too far north of the Potomac River or up Bay tributaries, unless a dry winter and spring has increased salinity upstream. The majority of Bay visitors are loggerheads (there are even some nesting loggerheads in the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach).
There are also leatherbacks (they like to eat jellyfish but prefer colder waters and usually head north to Maine and the Maritime Provinces), green turtles (though they're quite rare here, being primarily tropical dwellers) and even three recorded hawksbills, a tropical reef turtle. Kemp's ridleys are the second most common in the Bay behind loggerheads. Nearly all the turtles who find their way to the Bay are juveniles who've spent several years growing in the open ocean. They feed here for the summer, then leave the Bay and head south when temperatures start to fall.
While Kemp's ridleys prefer shallow flats, where they can feast on blue crabs, the more populous loggerheads like deeper channel edges. The loggerheads' preferred meal hereabouts is the horseshoe crab-bad luck for them, because that species is in decline in the Bay. Plan B for the loggerhead had been the blue crab-until their numbers also began to fall, reducing the loggerhead to scavenger status, according to Musick. "What we've seen in the last six years is [loggerheads] eating mostly fish they've robbed out of nets, or discards, because they're not really agile enough to catch free-floating fish."
The loggerhead's numbers, though, have been dropping. "Estimates from overflights have shown about a sixty percent decline through the early 2000s," he says. "The question is, is that really a population decline reflecting a general decline in the loggerhead population in the U.S., or is it a change in carrying capacity for loggerheads in the Chesapeake because their principal prey item has been overfished? Right now there's no way to answer that question."
In Maryland waters, the DNR's Cooperative Oxford Laboratory and the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2000 started a joint program to study turtles caught in pound nets in Maryland waters, again enlisting help from cooperating watermen ("Without the help of the fishermen we would not know a lot of what we know about turtles in the Bay," Barrios says). DNR vets and biologists tag, measure and weigh the pound-net detainees, give them an identification number and take a blood sample for a baseline health analysis before releasing them. Between July 2001 and the end of 2006, 110 sea turtles had been examined, says Tricia Kimmel of the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory. Of those, 54 were loggerheads, 52 were Kemp's ridleys and four were green turtles. They were found in pound nets throughout Maryland, including in Herring Bay, Fishing Bay, Hooper Island and Pocomoke River. Kimmel notes that dead turtles have been found as far north as the Magothy River.
The primary danger to turtles in the Bay is, not surprisingly, human. "They have no predators in the Bay," Barrios says. "We're the top predator for them." Approximately half of all animals MARP has cared for were hurt by human activities, Yates says. "A lot of them are hit by boats. People just don't realize these animals are here."
Boat strikes, in fact, are one of the most common causes of turtle injuries and deaths on the East Coast, Musick says. When a sea turtle prepares to come up for air, it rises close to the surface and hesitates there for a moment or two before pushing its head above water, taking a breath and then immediately diving. During that moment's pause just a foot or so from the surface, they're hard to see and extremely vulnerable to a boat strike. Also, Musick says, if there's a cold snap in early spring or fall, the turtles will come to the surface and bask in an effort to warm up, putting themselves in danger of being hit.
Unlike their terrestrial cousins, sea turtles cannot retract their heads or flippers. Musick says he has found turtles beheaded by boat propeller strikes. More commonly the propellers hit the shell, or carapace. Although it looks like nothing more than hard bone, the carapace is growing tissue. "It's covered with a layer of cells including nerves. [When we] drill through the shell, let's say to attach a radio tag, we use zylocaine to put into the wound because the turtle can feel that, you can see them flinch," Musick says. "There's bone underneath that but it's all living tissue and it's a growing layer. A turtle can bleed to death just like any other animal."
Fishing gear is another danger, as the cases of Geddy and the injured loggerhead found in July illustrate. Lines get tangled around flippers, hooks get swallowed. "I think it's more of a problem with Kemp's because they really love crab, and peeler crab is probably the most popular bait in the Chesapeake Bay," Musick says. Trash is also an obvious threat, as turtles can mistake it for food and swallow it, potentially fatally clogging their digestive systems.
In Virginia, between 250 and 350 sea turtles are found stranded annually in the Bay, most of them dead, Musick says, and most often in May and June-but also in October, when they begin to head south. Decomposition makes it hard to determine the cause of death in most cases, but in those where a cause can be found it ranges from boat strikes to fishing-gear entanglements and "cold stunning" (a reptilian version of hypothermia).
Maryland DNR's Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program responds to reports of dead animals. From 1991 through 2006, the DNR recorded 141 dead turtles: 124 loggerheads, seven Kemp's ridleys, six leatherbacks and four that were unidentifiable. The aquarium's MARP, which is called in to help with stranded animals found alive in Maryland waters, has responded to 13 live turtle strandings since 2002.
We're heading out of the Ocean City inlet on an early September morning into an oily flat sea and a hazy sky-perfect conditions to release Geddy. MARP volunteers have loaded the turtle's crate into a 21-foot Coast Guard RIB, and Jennifer Dittmar, the program's stranding coordinator, is riding out with her. Accompanying the RIB is a 47-foot cutter and the 40-foot charterboatFish Finder, owned by Captain Mark Sampson, who's also a MARP volunteer. He and his wife Charlotte are part of the Ocean City Stranding Team.
"Most of what my wife and I get involved with is the recovery of sick or stranded animals, disentangling turtles hung up in [fishing] gear offshore," he tells me as we cruise along behind the Coast Guard boats. "It's nice to see the end of this process, because usually when we're on the team in Ocean City the animals are very sick or injured. It's neat to see a successful end result."
Over the past three and a half months at the aquarium, Geddy has recovered steadily from her injuries and gained about six pounds. She is, it seems, more than ready to go. "The whole ride down here [in the MARP Suburban] she was crawling all around," says volunteer Al McKenzie, a big, burly man with a tattoo on his leg. "She's been very active in the pool these last few weeks and was quite active when we went to catch her."
About two miles off the inlet the cutter pulls up and waits, and the RIB andFish Findergather near. A nearly imperceptible swell moves beneath us. I wonder if Geddy can sense that, and whether a sea turtle can feel excitement. I'm sure she can smell the sea around her.
Dittmar and Coast Guard engineer John McNally slowly lift the turtle from the crate and over the RIB's soft inflatable hull. As soon as she's clear of the crate, Geddy's flippers start paddling like mad. Dittmar and McNally position her carefully on the hull's edge. Poised over the water for just a moment, the turtle makes her wishes known. Her head is pointing to the water; her flippers are pushing against the RIB's hull, Dittmar and anything else they can get leverage on in her efforts to be free. As soon as Dittmar carefully lowers her and lets go, she's off. Dittmar raises her hands and yells, "Woo hoo!"
Geddy has made it back home.
The satellite transmitter glued to Geddy's carapace allowed researchers and scientists to follow her track for about a month. Based on the tag's transmissions, she spent about two weeks meandering off the Virginia coast and briefly went south of Cape Henry, then headed north back into the lower Bay, where the signal finally faded and was lost in late October. Dittmar says the device's battery pack typically sends a signal for about 30 days-though other factors, such as weather, location and even a failure of the epoxy used to secure the transmitter, could lead to loss of signal.
Meantime, the MARP team this February was still tracking the travels of Ed, the 108-pound loggerhead turtle whose flipper had to be amputated at the aquarium after it was found by a waterman off Hooper Island late last July. After spending the summer recovering at the aquarium in Baltimore, Ed was transferred to the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, which works with VIMS and MARP and responds to sea turtle strandings in the Bay south of the James River and along the Eastern Shore. Ed was released off Ocracoke Island, N.C., on November 13. By early February he had traveled more than 700 miles off the Carolina coast and was hanging out offshore of Myrtle Beach.
To see Ed's track, go towww.aqua.organd click on the link to "Track 'Ed' the Sea Turtle." To learn more about the aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Program go to
www.aqua.org/oceanhealth_marp.html. For more information on Maryland's sea turtle tagging and health assessment studies through the DNR's Cooperative Oxford Laboratory or DNR's Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program, go to
www.dnr.state.md.us. To learn more about the Sea Turtle Program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, go to
www.fisheries.vims.edu. And for information on the Virginia Aquar-ium and Marine Science Center go to
Helping Sea Turtles in the Bay
The best thing a boater can do to help sea turtles in the Chesapeake is be aware that the animals are here-and slow down and keep a lookout when you're in shallow water (where Kemp's ridleys are likely to be) or at channel edges where loggerheads forage.
Don't litter, and if you see garbage in the water pick it up. It's easy for turtles to mistake trash for food-especially plastics like bags and six-pack holders, for instance-and eating it can block their digestive tracts and lead to a slow death by starvation.
If you're fishing, properly dispose of fishing line, which can injure turtles or, if it's clumped up, can also look like food. If you accidentally catch a sea turtle, call the DNR stranding hotline at 800-628-9944, or call the Coast Guard on VHF 16. Both can direct you to the proper people at either MARP or the DNR. If you can't call the pros, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has listed the following do's and don'ts:
Do: Gently bring the turtle close to you and use a dip net or firmly hold the front flippers (watch out for the flipper claws) and shell to safely lift the turtle from the water. Remove the hook only if it is lightly hooked and can be taken out without further injury. If you must cut the line, cut it as close as possible to the hook and remove any line that's become entangled around the turtle.
Don't: Lift the turtle above the water by pulling the line, as this will only cause more injury. Don't remove the hook if you can't take it out easily. Don't leave a long piece of line trailing from the hook. Don't release the turtle if it has serious cuts, entanglements or has ingested the hook. Keep the turtle in the shade, and call one of the numbers listed below, depending on your location, as soon as possible:
From the James River south or on Virginia's Eastern Shore, contact the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center at 757-437-6159; from the James River north to the Potomac River (the Maryland border), call the VIMS Stranding Program at 804-684-7313; in Maryland waters call the DNR's stranding hotline at 800-628-9944.
If you find an injured or stranded turtle, dead or alive, call the same numbers listed above.
Finally, if you do catch and release a sea turtle, you can help scientists by recording and passing on the following information: date, time, location (GPS if possible), description (photos or video are helpful), behavior and signs of injury.