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Terrapin Heroine

By Teresa hagan

What starts out sounding like a bad joke is actually the beginning of one of LBI’s most enduring environmental love stories.

A handsome young stranger walks into…a local eatery and asks the pretty waitress, “What do you do around here on a rainy day?”

Without missing a beat, the petite 32-year-old blonde replies, “You come back here at one o’clock and take me to lunch.”

That lunch turned into a six-hour date that ended with the unlikely romantic question: “Do you like turtles?” So happens, the blonde adored turtles—a good thing because the handsome stranger had 30 at home! The rest, as the cliché goes, is history…the history of saving the terrapins on Long Beach Island.

The waitress was long-time Loveladies resident Kathy Smith; the diner, Mustache Bill’s, owned by her brother in Barnegat Light; and the good-looking turtle man, her future husband, Tom Lacey.

Recently over breakfast in Surf City, Kathy filled in the blanks. An army “brat” whose dad chose LBI over Hawaii for retirement, Kathy fell in love with the island, especially the dike in High Bar Harbor. The area was desolate, pristine and full of terrapins. “As a kid I’d spend hours just watching them. There were so many, you couldn’t avoid them.”

But as kids do, Kathy grew up: after graduating from Southern Regional, she earned her teaching degree from Rider University, married—it didn’t work out—got her real-estate license and landed back home waiting tables to supplement her income. Then fate intervened with the “turtle guy.”

When Tom complained that he was putting in too many miles driving back and forth from his home in Abington, PA, to LBI, Kathy, ever quick on the up-take, had a ready solution: “So, marry me,” she said. And so they were, on Oct. 13, 1984, by the then-mayor of Barnegat Light.

Fast forward to a house in Abington soon filled with two growing boys and, at one time, as many as two hundred turtles. “My one son used to sleep with a turtle in a lunchbox on his chest,” Kathy laughs. “My other son, not so much. I think he was embarrassed.”

Life was beautiful until 2008 when Kathy was diagnosed with HER 2 positive breast cancer. It was tough on everyone, but Kathy, as usual, confronted the situation head-on and—after successfully completing chemo—returned to her beloved island to recuperate.

It was then, on long walks at the dike, that Kathy first noticed things had changed. In her life, but also on LBI. Instead of terrapins, she and Tom were seeing upended turtle nests with broken shells on top.

What happened between her teen years and now? In a word, civilization. With development in High Bar Harbor came people, and with people came trash and with trash raccoons. “The area was full of them,” Kathy explains. “The terrapins didn’t have a chance.” And, if the terrapins didn’t have a chance, Barnegat Bay was in trouble. “Terrapins are important as both secondary and tertiary consumers,” says Kathy. “Secondary, because the babies eat parasites, larva, insects, and worms that destroy the eel grass that keeps the bay clean. Tertiary, because the adults eat crabs and clams to keep the bay in balance. When you remove the terrapins, you take a big chunk out of the ecosystem. The bay was suffering.”

On one of those walks in 2009, Kathy spotted a mother about to lay her eggs. Fortunately, Tom knew just what to do—he “pulled” the nest. It’s not a job for amateurs.

Unlike a bird egg, which the momma periodically rotates to ensure her baby gets sufficient nutrients, a turtle egg can’t be turned. Instead of free-floating, a turtle embryo attaches itself to the shell and would drown if tipped upside down. Moreover, obeying the call of Mother Nature, turtles lay their eggs at specific depths to determine their gender. Eggs deposited at the top of the nest where it’s warmer will be females; eggs at lower, cooler depths will be male.

“My husband is amazing,” says Kathy. “As a child, he had a Golden Book on turtles that sparked a life-long interest. He knows every species, including their Latin names, their mating habits and how to pull a nest.” After removing the eggs, being careful not to turn them, Tom replanted them at the same exact same depths in a protected area.

Soon the Laceys were rescuing more turtles than they could handle. That’s when the Crimis, Tracey and John, and their six-year-old daughter, Grace—also known as the “turtle girl”—got involved. “With the natural instincts of a ‘terrapin tracker’ and a healthy dose of turtle DNA, Grace joined me as I shadowed a female terrapin on her quest to find a perfect nesting site,” Kathy recalls. “Grace has been my intern ever since.” And, her parents became Kathy’s first volunteers and biggest supporters, donating the cages for a protected hatchery beside their home in High Bar Harbor. The Terrapin Nesting Project was born that June in 2011.

“Our pilot year was a huge success,” says Kathy. “We were able to relocate, incubate, hatch and release more than 200 hatchlings into the bay in Barnegat Light by September 2011—an amazing ninety-one-percent success rate!” Other successes soon followed: an Outstanding Achievement Award and funding from the Sierra Club, grants from the local garden club and taxpayers’ association, and, most recently, an offer to partner with the world-renowned Turtle Conservancy.

Word of the project spread like baby turtles. New volunteers poured in. One, Jenna Hem of Mayetta, came to talk and stayed nine hours. “Jenna is a natural,” explains Kathy. “it’s hard to spot a terrapin nest, but she always finds them. Jill Snyder is another. She’s been wonderful.”

Meanwhile, on the south end of the island, Holgate resident Bette Della Torre had been watching females trying to nest unsuccessfully. When she heard about Kathy and her volunteers, Bette drove up to High Bar to see what was going on. Like Jenna, she was hooked and stayed the whole day. Soon Kathy and her overstretched volunteers were getting calls from Bette. It was a strain on an already burdened crew and an over-crowded hatchery. Not only did the TNP have to pull the Holgate nests and relocate them north for incubation, it also had to return the newborns to their breeding grounds in the south.

It wasn’t long before Bette volunteered her backyard. In another stroke of luck, Chuck Henry, who had been relocating nests in Holgate on his own for years, volunteered to be the hatchery’s first supervisor. “Chuck is phenomenal,” says Bette. “He’s so meticulous and organized, keeping spreadsheets of the number of nests, location, eggs, incubation length, and hatching and release dates.” And his diligence has paid off: in 2014, the first year of the project, more than 400 babies were returned to the bay. Last fall Holgate releases rose to 515, a 96-percent success rate.

To date, more than 6,000 hatchlings have been released into Barnegat Bay, thanks to the TNP. “I started with no funding, no volunteers and little time for planning,” explains Kathy, “but what we had was a goal that touched the hearts of everyone we spoke to: protecting the nesting female terrapins, their eggs, and their hatchlings. The community, local businesses, and vacationers have embraced the project. There wouldn’t be a Terrapin Nesting Project without them.”

Or, without Kathy and that handsome stranger who walked into Mustache Bill’s 30-odd years ago.

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