San Francisco

‘Swim Away:' Zoo Keepers From San Francisco and Oakland Release Turtles

In a small seasonal pond just outside the Bay Area in Lake County, an eight-year effort to save California’s native Western Pond Turtles played out last week.

Amid the rural terrain of Lake County, teams of zoo-keepers from the San Francisco and Oakland Zoos, along with researchers from Sonoma State University toted tubs filled with the year-old turtles to return them to their birthplace of the previous year.

“The process is called 'head starting,' " said Oakland Zoo’s zoological manager Adam Fink. “We are giving them a literal head start in life.”

Western Pond Turtles, California’s only true native turtle, face enormous hurdles early on in life. They are listed by the State of California as a "species of special concern." Their eggs, which are buried in underground nests, are a prized meal for critters like skunks and coyotes. And newly hatched turtles are ripe pickings for a bevy of predators. So in an effort to give the turtles a better chance at survival, the zoos began collecting the eggs from the nests and raising the young turtles in the safety of their facilities for the first year of their lives before re-releasing them back into their native pond.

turtles in tub
Joe Rosato/NBC Bay Area
Nearly two dozen Western Pond Turtles sit in a plastic tub, waiting release in their ancestral pond in Lake County. July 14, 2016

“They get past that critical point in their life,” said Fink, “to where their chances for survival to adulthood to breeding age is much greater.”

The project was started by Sonoma State University biology professor Nick Geist eight years ago in what he intended as a brief study. But Geist said he began to appreciate the turtles’ personalities and has continued to retrieve the turtles year after year — even through the drought which dried up the seasonal pond where the turtles are extracted over the past several years. This year’s winter rain brought back the pond for the first time in years.

“The entire eco-system here has come back,” Geist said. “It’s just sort of a just-add-water phenomenon and everything comes back — and bursts back into life including the turtles.”

Last week, the team of conservationists and zoo keepers hauled several plastic tubs carrying some two dozen turtles to the pond, trudging waist-high in water through 50 yards of thick tules to reach open water. Once in open water the team began releasing the turtles one-by-one into the edges of the pond.

turtle release
Joe Rosato/NBC Bay Area
A Western Pond Turtle waits release in a marsh in Lake County. July 14, 2016

“Swim away,” said Fink as he released a turtle. The reptile briefly padded along the surface eyeing the team before plunging down into the water and disappearing.

“It’s so worth it when you get out there,” said Jessie Bushell, director of Conservation at the San Francisco Zoo, “and you actually get to take these little animals you’ve been rearing for a year and see them swim away.”

Bushell said even though the turtles were still in their eggs when removed from the nests, their instincts kick-in once they’re back in their ancestral waters. She said they know how to hunt for bugs and dragonfly larvae — and know which direction to head.

“It’s really interesting to know when you put them out there they’re going to be fine,” Bushell said.

turtle in pond
Joe Rosato/NBC Bay Area
A Western Pond Turtle eyes its surroundings after being released into a pond in Lake County. July 14, 2016

The idea of working with animals that will never go on public display seems an unusual role for zoos. But Bushell said it’s a role many zoos have now embraced.

“Zoos have really changed their philosophies over the past couple of decades,” Bushell said, “and really embraced the idea that we can also be an active part in conservation.”

Geist said the group will return next summer to collect more eggs — giving another batch of turtles a fighting chance. As the group released the last turtle into the marsh, Geist watched it warily eye its surroundings before diving into the murk and disappearing. Geist took in the sight with a beaming sort of pride.

“I’m a proud papa,” he said.

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