The 16 students on the boat had spent the week canoeing in shallow waters, learning about the Chesapeake Bay and, on Thursday last week, “scraping” seagrass in Dorchester County. Not as destructive as it sounds, scraping describes taking a large net and dragging it through seagrass to see what you catch.
And, in the case of the students on this boat, on an educational expedition with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, all the critters that are caught in the net are quickly returned to the water.
When you pull up a scrape net in the bay, you’d expect to see crabs and lots of fish, and maybe a terrapin if you’re lucky, said Jocelyn Tuttle, Maryland student leadership and education coordinator with the foundation. Last week on the bay, though, something rare happened.
“We took the scrape out in the grass bed. And, when they pulled it out, there was this big clump,” Tuttle said. “The captain said it was something they had never caught before.”
A video shows a foundation staff member carrying the pile of seagrass to a table and carefully pushing back some of the grass. The staffer then carefully picked up a young sea turtle from under its flippers, as everyone onboard gasped and cheered at the sight.
“I was just shocked. I didn’t know those were in grass beds in such shallow water near us. So I was amazed, I guess.” said Atlee Hilliard, a rising high school junior from Hagerstown. “I’ve seen them at aquariums but nothing like that.”
As the turtle was lifted in the air on the video, it quickly moved its flippers up and down — almost as if waving hello.
Tuttle said the turtle — exact species to be determined — looked “super healthy” and was able to “zip away” when staff returned it to the water. It was aboard the boat for just a minute or two, with the students excitedly taking pictures and some touching its shell.
Even though this is the first time anyone from the CBF can remember scraping up a sea turtle in the bay, it’s actually “very common” for them to be there, especially later in the summer, according to an expert from the National Aquarium.
“Depending on the species, they will forage on blue crabs, seagrass and even jellyfish,” Caitlin Bovery, a rehabilitation manager at the aquarium, said in an email.
The aquarium does not track how many sea turtles are in the bay, because of their “cryptic behavior” and the fact that they’re “highly migratory and only visible for short periods of time,” Bovery wrote.
She said the National Aquarium has seen an uptick in the number of sea turtles reported to its stranding hotline, but it’s difficult to determine whether that means there are actually more turtles, or if the public is just more aware of them.
And if someone sees a sea turtle in the bay or along the Eastern Shore, the best thing to do is give the animal some space, Bovery said. If the animal appears injured or sick, the best thing to do is to call the aquarium’s 24/7 hotline at 410-576-3880.
Education on the bay
Atlee and the other students on the boat were participating in CBF’s Student Leadership program, which teaches students about the Chesapeake Bay, with a focus on teamwork, planning skills and fostering student interest in environmental issues.
On this particular weeklong boat trip, the students were participating in CBF’s Delmarva Discovery Expedition, learning about the communities, history and land use of the Eastern Shore and Delmarva Peninsula.
In addition to finding the sea turtle, students canoed among cypress trees, tested water quality in the Nanticoke River and conducted surface runoff investigations in downtown Salisbury, said John Surrick, a spokesman for CBF.
The programs are open to any student from across the country, but CBF focuses on students from Maryland, Virginia and surrounding states.
So what is it that attracted Atlee, a teenager from Western Maryland (and not near the shore), to a program focusing on the Chesapeake Bay?
She says it’s because she’s always loved the beach and that’s grown into a love of marine science. In fact, she’s working to earn an associate degree in environmental studies from Hagerstown Community College while she’s still in high school, she said.
“I think it’s a lot about policy, and how we can protect the environment, that interests me a lot,” she said.
And, while she got a photo of the turtle, she didn’t pose with it like some of her peers.
“I didn’t get to touch it,” she said. “I was too interested in the crabs [that came from another scrape].”
For Tuttle, the experience was about more than just seeing and holding the juvenile turtle. A veteran teacher, she said she gets filled with joy seeing the students react.
“When I see the students get excited, I’m immediately back in my sixth grade shoes. So excited and enthralled,” she said. “You can see that joy in the students. You can see that passion igniting in them to learn more and to see more.”
The turtle was quickly returned to the water. Because sea turtles are endangered, Tuttle said, they reported the finding to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
But, as the turtle quickly swam off, it left a mystery: What species is it? Tuttle was quick to say she’s no turtle expert, and she and other staff members were googling information about sea turtles to answer questions from their students on the boat.
The leading theory is that it’s a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, but the foundation hasn’t been told definitively.
“We sent pictures off to some experts, and they’re still not quite sure,” Tuttle said.