The Diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) is a unique species in coastal Virginia as it is the only turtle that spends its whole life in estuarine and salt water marshes. They can live up to 40 years and feed on small fish and shellfish. At one time, diamondback terrapins were so common in the Chesapeake Bay region that the University of Maryland named it the mascot of its sports teams.
Due to human activity, these "Terps" have had many difficulties. Commercial harvesting from the 1880's to the 1930's decimated the population as diamondbacks were the preferred main ingredient for turtle soup. Recovery of the species is threatened by predators such as raccoons, wading birds, and large fish. Boat strikes and habitat loss are also greatly hindering the possibility of the population to return to significant levels. As of now, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries list the diamondback terrapin as "Near Threatened".
The biggest dangers for the diamondback are crab pots. They are attracted to the bait and get caught in the pot. But unlike blue crabs, terrapins need to come up to the surface for air, or they will drown. Commercial watermen and commercial crabbers are starting to eliminate this threat by using By catch Reduction Devices (BRDs) or Turtle Exclusion Devices (TEDs). BDRs and TEDs prevent the turtles from entering the pot as it narrows the entrance. Blue crabs are still able to get in and get trapped. Studies and test have shown these devices do not reduce the number of crabs caught.
When visiting the Virginia State Parks or Nature Area Preserves around the Chesapeake Bay, please do not go beyond the visitor designated locations and trails. If you are lucky enough to see one walking along the shoreline or swimming as you are paddling, please do not disturb it. Take a photo and wish to see many more diamondback terrapins in years to come. If you happen to visit First Landing State Park, stop by the Trail Center and see their resident terrapin, "Lynnhaven."
Directions to First Landing State Park: From I-64, take Northampton Blvd.-U.S. 13 North (Exit 282). Go through eight lights and then turn right at the Shore Drive/U.S. 60 exit (last exit before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel). Take a right on Shore Drive and go four and a half miles to the park entrance. To reach the Chesapeake Bay Center, park office, camping or cabins, turn left off U.S. Rt. 60 at the stoplight and check in at the contact station or park office. For the Trail Center, picnic area and trails, turn right instead.