While the impact of Superstorm Sandy on human life has been glaringly visible, less apparent is how the storm has affected wildlife. Researchers and college students have been walking through Island Beach State Park looking for the Northern Diamondback Terrapin. It's considered the "canary in a coalmine" for salt marshes.
"There's one right over there. It's a white head that actually looks like it's moving to the shoreline," said John Wnek PhD, supervisor at the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science, a high school in Manahawkin. "It has a brownish body. Bright white head. . . it's making its way to the vegetation over there? That's what we're looking for!"
Wnek was hoping to see 100 turtle heads popping out of the water in Spizzle Cove. Instead, there were four. He's concerned that Sandy has taken its toll. The cove, in one of the more pristine areas of Barnegat Bay, is not the same.
"I'm looking at this one area that last year was filled in with spartina grasses that is now barren," he said. "So something has now changed in that part of the marsh, for sure. This could be a result of washover. It looks like maybe some of the sediment kind of washed over, covered an area. Its almost like taking sand or any kind of soil, and just covering a lawn."
That could ultimately cut the terrapin's food supply, endangering the marsh.
"Without a terrapin, you could have invertebrates such as these marsh periwinkles that feed on or graze on vegetation that will literally denude a marsh of this vegetation."
He walks up to a thick mat of phragmites. Sandy dumped the invasive reed, which could discourage nesting. Down the trail is a lifeless turtle that Wnek says has been dead a long time.
"Looking at its tail structure, the back structure -- looks like a female, pretty young one too," he said. "Doesn't look like she was attacked by any predator, so it could be a good indication that she was washed out. "
Back at the van, an adult female rescued from Sandy, sensing the marsh is near, doggedly tries to climb out of her tub. She is one of more than 40 turtles recovered by the academy, in hopes of releasing them back into the wild.
"We would have calls from people saying they had terrapin hatchlings in their basement from the mud that washed in. We also had some that were walking along the ocean beach," Wnek said. "This was in November into December, and we had reports of terrapins just walking along the ocean beach, which is not typically where they would be."
Before the storm, Wnek went out and scooped up hatchling turtles, even though he normally resists interfering with Mother Nature. They will be released next week. Now he's hoping debris that's still clogging the delicate ecosystem can get cleared out.
Experts say Sandy will likely have the greatest impact on the Diamondback Terrapin and nesting birds like oyster catchers, egrets, terns, gulls, piping plovers.
Over the next few weeks, the birds and turtles will return to New Jersey beaches to nest. In mid-July, researchers hope to know Sandy's true wildlife legacy.