New exhibit at Camden's Adventure Aquarium showcases 20 kinds of turtles
Popular images of turtles, whether they're as gallant as the crime-fighting "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" or as kind and engaging as Crush in "Finding Nemo," make them ideal ambassadors for the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, N.J.
"People really connect with turtles," says Nikki Grandinetti, organizer of the aquarium's latest exhibit, "Turtles: Journey of Survival."
The exhibit highlights more than 20 species of aquatic and land turtles and tortoises from all over the world, with fascinating features that have enabled them to survive and evolve over the last 200 million years. They endured an Ice Age and outlived the dinosaurs.
The exhibit includes turtles as large as Bob, a 450-pound, 21-year-old Loggerhead sea turtle, and as small as a half-dollar-sized, three-striped mud turtle. It also contains unusual turtles. The Mata Mata is into camouflage, with a shell that looks like tree bark and a head resembling fallen leaves. The ferocious-looking Alligator Snapping Turtle, the largest freshwater turtle in North America, can tip the scales at more than 150 pounds.
Although some turtles look frightening or have scary-sounding names like the snapping turtles, Grandinetti says, "A turtle usually will try to get away from you, rather than bite you, unless you're threatening it, have stepped on its head or are trying to pick it up."
She adds, "I really don't recommend keeping turtles as pets. They require special foods, lighting and heating and can't be trained to do anything like coming when you call their name. They also represent a long-term commitment."
But turtles' characteristics make them fascinating aquarium attractions. The Painted Wood Turtle looks like it's dancing for food when it stomps on the ground. However, it's actually creating vibrations that will draw juicy earthworms to the surface for its lunch.
The critically endangered Radiated Tortoise emits a high-pitched cry that can go on for hours to scare away any hungry and nearby predators. But the aquarium's resident Radiated Tortoise apparently feels safe and cozy, according to aquarium spokeswoman Kim Walker, who notes "he has been very quiet and polite."
Taken together with other aquarium headliners including hippopotamuses and the largest shark collection on the East Coast, the turtles make it worth leaving your own shell for a trip to the Camden waterfront.
Spend a little time viewing the turtles and you'll buy into the idea of helping these reptile ambassadors survive for another 200 million years. "The turtles make a strong case for conservation and stewarding the environment," Grandinetti says.
The aquarium's three rescued Loggerhead sea turtles are among the most engaging stars. Each tells a story about the dedication of volunteers on the lookout for eggs that haven't hatched, stragglers too weak to crawl out of the nest and "hatchlings" so confused by artificial lighting (a form of habitat destruction) along the beaches that they can't find their way to the water, explains Grandinetti.
Tortuga, the newest and youngest of the Loggerheads, is a 3-month-old hatchling rescued on a North Carolina beach. "He'll stay with us for about a year until he's strong enough to make it on his own. Before he's released into the warm Gulf Stream off North Carolina, he'll be tagged with a satellite tracking device so his migratory patterns can be studied," the curator says.
Ozzy, a yearling sea turtle, joins Bob as a permanent Adventure Aquarium resident. "Ozzy was another hatchling too weak to get to the ocean on his own," Grandinetti says. But he got his second chance at life when volunteers rescued him and he began recuperating. However, those caring for him noticed his growth was stunted and his back flippers were slightly deformed, on top of having a condition that gave him a tendency to sink to the bottom. His conditions made Ozzy vulnerable to predators in the wild, so he was deemed "non-releasable" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Although Ozzy would not have survived in his natural habitat, he's expected to thrive at the aquarium. "One of the good things about having Ozzy join us as a toddler is that returning guests will be able to see him mature. He'll literally grow up, along with our young guests. In that regard, he isn't just a member of the aquarium family, he's a member of all our families."
The plight of New Jersey's Northern Diamondback Terrapins is another example of the need for turtle conservation. The terrapins have lost most of their safe nesting habitats near coastal salt marshes and are forced to use road crossing embankments. That means many adult females are killed or maimed while trying to cross roads. Others drown when they become snared in commercial crab traps.
The aquarium has teamed with the Wetlands Institute of New Jersey in Stone Harbor to raise money for its conservation efforts, including road patrols (getting terrapins across roads safely), giving hatchlings a head start and rehabbing injured adults. Aquarium visitors can buy "I brake for turtles" souvenirs, make a $1 donation to Save a Turtle or make a larger donation (from $10 to $500) to the Adopt a Terrapin program. The money goes toward all of the institute's terrapin initiatives.
Visitors can get a close look at them in the water and when they emerge to bask at the aquarium's Terrapin Tide Pool.
There are other threatened or endangered turtle species, including the wood turtle and the bog turtle, requiring people's attention. "We want people to understand the need to keep the water in streams and creeks close to their homes clean and free of items like plastic rings that hold soda bottles together and ordinary plastic bags," Grandinetti says.
She adds, "That pollution can wind up in the ocean. Turtles feed on jellyfish and can mistake a plastic bag for a jelly fish. A turtle that eats a plastic bag will die."
•What: "Turtles: Journey of Survival" showcases 20 kinds of turtles including a hatchling, toddler and full-grown Loggerhead sea turtles. Runs through March 24.
•Where: Adventure Aquarium, 1 Riverside Drive, Camden, N.J.
•When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
•How much: $24.95; $17.95 for children 2-12.
•Tip 1: Secure parking available adjacent to aquarium, for $10
•Tip 2: Turtle story time is 11 a.m., 12:30 and 2 p.m. Feb. 24 and March 9, featuring author Donna Zappala reading her book, "What Kind of Turtle Am I?"
•Tip 3: Plan to see live show Journey of Five Turtles, 11:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. weekdays; 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. weekends.
•Info: http://www.adventureaquarium.com, 856-365-3300