At the suggestion of my friend Charles Dutoit, a retired biologist at Tomoka State Park, I took a meeting with Maria Melnechuk to discuss turtles.
Maria is an environmental specialist with the park and is heading up a project to track and study the diamondback terrapin. These turtles are interesting in that they will not live in fresh water or in the ocean. Their only habitat is the inshore brackish estuaries. That fact immediately caught my attention.
This is an animal that is very specific about where it chooses to make its home.
At the park, Maria and I were joined by Paul Hadt of the St. Johns River Water Management District. Although little is known about these reptiles, Maria and Paul probably know as much as anyone in these parts.
They are small turtles that spend most of their lives in the water. In the park it is known that each spring and summer they come ashore on a sandy beach to lay their eggs. The place they choose is usually where they were hatched. The male of the species is the smaller, usually only around five inches in shell length. The female is just a bit larger and can be eight inches long. The skin ranges from very light to dark and is peppered with small black dots and marks. The shell is a mottled brown.
At this point I have to tell you I have never seen this strange looking turtle, although the experts claim they are very common. I know I have probably spent more time on the water around Tomoka State Park than any of their employees and in all of my years there, I don't remember ever seeing such a thing. Still, according to Maria, sightings are not that rare and the turtles are numerous. In fact, she and Paul insist the diamondbacks leave the water and lay their eggs on the shore in broad daylight.
That idea was very perplexing to me.
For all of my life those who know me understand that I have a trained eye for nature. I am always the first to spot any nearby wildlife activity when on the water.
Now I am told I have missed these turtles for 45 years.
Don't get me wrong; whenever I am out in the kayak or wading, I usually see a lot of small turtles. I admit I don't give them much thought and suppose I pass them off as being juvenile sea turtles or the like. If I had ever seen such a strange looking beast, I know I would have remembered it. Maria says the turtles that pop up near me, may not be exposing enough to make an identification.
Perhaps, but what about the egg laying. Their eggs are just a bit larger than robin eggs and are snow white. I have never seen any of those eggshells on the beach there or anyplace else.
At our meeting, I was shown a couple discarded shells and some photos of tracks and nests on the sand. Those are very faint and, in the past, I may have confused them with crab or bird tracks. On the Atlantic beach, when a giant sea turtle comes ashore to nest, it looks like a tractor has torn up the sand. These are so small; their tracks are hardly noticeable.
The state is asking us fishermen to give them a hand in tracking the diamondback terrapins. They occur along the inshore estuaries of Volusia County and most of the state. If you see one try and get a photo and GPS coordinates and report to terrapin@MYFWC.com. As common as they are, little is known about their habits and movements. The state will soon be able to provide turtle excluder devices that can be attached to crab traps. Those traps are the biggest killers of the diamondback.
On a personal note, please let me know if you spot one. I am just a bit bewildered these things have eluded me for all these years.
Dan Smith has fished the waters of Volusia County for more than 40 years. Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, "I Swear the Snook Drowned," is available for $10.95 at (386) 441-7793.