A Bale of Terrapins Take to the Bay

Diamondback terrapins used to be a regular harvest in the Chesapeake Bay. Pulled out of their cozy wintertime hibernation spots on the bottom of rivers and coves, terrapin were sold wholesale by watermen who progged the marshes in the off-season to supplement their income. Destined to be added to cream and sherry and made into turtle soup, a much loved example of traditional Bay fare, terrapin was a staple on steamboat menus and restaurant specials throughout the Chesapeake and beyond for 200 years.


      From the New York Public Library’s historical menu collection, ca. 1900.

By the late 19th century, terrapin was being consumed in record amounts- in 1891 alone, 89150 pounds were harvested to meet the intense demand of the growing gourmand market. But it wasn’t to last. The popularity of turtle soup waned as Prohibition made one of the key ingredients, sherry, nigh impossible to come by. The terrapin population at large, destined to avoid a savory terminus at a porcelain and crystal-bedecked dining car, breathed a sigh of watery relief.

The diamondback terrapin is native to the eastern and southern United States, and can be distinguished by its parquet-patterned shell and squiggly, ink-blot markings on their tender, exposed skin. Found in brackish water estuaries, they are strong swimmers, with webbed feet, and feed upon the varied diet that flourishes in the Bay habitat:shrimp, clams, crabs, mussels, and periwinkles.

The diamondback terrapin harvest was outlawed in 2007 after a precipitous decline in the population of the masked mud-lovers due to the globalization (and subsequent rush to meet the Asian demand) of the terrapin market. Today, as the official Maryland state reptile, efforts are being made to restore their population in the Bay, and Navy Point is no exception. Last week, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum hosted one of the cutest restoration initiatives I’ve ever seen when we partnered with the Terrapin Institute to release some hand-raised terrapins along our living shoreline. These freckled little fellows have been lovingly attended all year by classes of students in Howard County, and after being tagged and measured, they were off to the shallows of the Bay’s tributaries, cheered on by kids standing in the grasses and on the docks.


The Terrapin Institute, located in Neavitt, Maryland, rescues terrapin eggs from unstable or perilous locations (anyone who has ever had a turtle hunker down for an egg deposit right on their driveway knows what I’m talking about). The eggs are incubated, and then the terrapin tykes are sent to be fostered in classrooms throughout Maryland for a year, until they’re large enough to be safely released into the wild.


This is Jeff Popp, a herpetologist with the Terrapin Institute who organized the release. Jeff seemed unfazed by the large, excited, crocs-wearing crowd of kindergarteners. He was also unfazed by the unavoidable, yet little-known fact that terrapins are a little stinky. Another little known fact: a group of terrapins is called a “bale”.


Jeff took out a tiny drill and gently tagged the shell of each terrapin juvenile and collected data on their size and markings. It didn’t hurt them, Jeff assured the crowd, but the vibrations made the turtles extra-squirmy.


                                  The kids were mesmerized.


      Even though a fame-hungry water snake nearby tried to steal the show.


Before they hit the water, a couple of turtles got a little smooch to send them off.


Once released, they paddled purposefully away as if they’d never lived in a tank at all. As diamondback terrapin are long-lived creatures, over 50 years in some cases, we hope our museum-released turtles spend that time they way their predecessors did: bathed in the brackish tide, sunning on a log until the moonrise sends them back down to the bottom, under the eelgrass.