Painted Turtles

Feb 8, 2021 | Art, Essays & Stories

By Susan Baur

Photos by Susan Baur

One summer I was invited to spend several days on Naushon Island, the almost mythical vacation home of the Forbes family, established in 1842 and located across the water from Woods Hole. I was on the lookout for turtles. Specifically, I wanted to know if the painted turtles here looked different from the ones in Cape Cod ponds because of their isolation. Any turtle now living in Mary’s Lake on Naushon had been interbreeding there since the glacier that formed Cape Cod retreated fifteen thousand years ago. Of course, it took a while for ponds to form, turtles to populate them, and finally the island to be cut off from the mainland by rising seas, but even with all that imperceptibly slow and powerful action, the turtles of Naushon had spent the last seven or eight thousand years isolated from the mainland. I knew Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket each had a unique subspecies of a short-tailed shrew. Perhaps Naushon had its own painted turtles.

On a hot September afternoon, I took my swim bag and headed along one of the paths that serve as roads in what looks like a stage set for a film set in the 19th century. A short walk brought me to Mary’s Lake, which I estimated was about 15 acres in size. Surrounded by blueberry bushes and water willow scrub, it looked perfect for turtles but not so good for swimmers. For one thing, the water was the color of strong tea and visibility would be low. For another, what I could see of the bottom was a thick mat of muddy leaves. A large, well-maintained dock extended 20 feet into the water in the shape of a T. In the left-hand corner between the top of the T and the stem was a wooden ladder that descended into the water. Tied to that was a rowboat that floated among the pilings.

Putting on my mask and snorkel, I sat on the top rung of the ladder and watched the water. Almost immediately the rowboat moved itself from its position under the dock to the foot of the ladder. Odd, I thought. Then, with a soft scraping sound, it moved back.

A woman came hurrying down the path. “Please don’t!” she shouted, pointing to the water as she caught her breath. “The snappers eat meat…” I must have looked puzzled. “It’s a tradition,” she explained. “We’ve fed them hot dogs for a hundred years.”

We chatted as I took off my dive mask, and she kindly suggested I use the rowboat. By this time about a dozen diminutive painted turtles had popped up at the foot of the ladder also hoping to be fed. The woman referred to them as “big.” Although to me, as I photographed them, they looked two thirds or three-quarters the size of the painted turtles I usually swam with.

As I untied the aluminum skiff, I heard the scrapping noise again and up from under the boat came a silver-headed, gray-backed snapper weighing somewhere between 50 and 60 pounds. From three feet away we gazed into each other’s eyes. His, I noticed, had irises of a deep cerulean blue surrounding surprisingly large pupils. Good for seeing in dim light, I thought, looking again at the brown water. Soft sighs came from his pig-like snout and puffs of mist erupted from his nostrils every time he exhaled. Keeping my hands off the gunwales, I climbed into the boat and pushed off. In a moment, the snapper caught up with me, and I could feel his shell scrape against the bottom of the boat as he swam under. We proceeded like this around the entire pond, him following some dozen feet behind then catching up and bumping the boat—a gentle reminder of what I was supposed to do.

For the next several days, I photographed painted turtles who obligingly appeared whenever anyone set foot on the dock. They didn’t all look the same, and they weren’t visually different from turtles on the Cape. It would require a much more sophisticated analysis to know if they had branched off into their own subspecies.

Years later, I came across a very different explanation of how painted turtles branched off from their drab ancestors. According to a Native American legend, there was a time when all turtles looked the same. Every one of them was the color of mud. One day, one of these turtles climbed up from the river to a nearby lodge and, seeing a beautiful girl, fell instantly in love. He wanted to speak to her, but no one gave him a second glance. Day after day he climbed up from the river and day after day he wondered how he could win the beautiful girl.  Finally, he thought, “If I would paint up, they would notice it and ask me why I painted.” The next day he painted up and went to the lodge. When the girl saw him all shiny black with stripes of yellow across his back, and orange and pink lines going down his arms and legs, she was smitten. Only when she followed him to the river, did she realize he was a turtle, not a man. Sadly, she said she couldn’t live in a river. “Come follow me,” said the painted turtle. “You will turn into a turtle the same as I am.” She indeed did turn into a turtle, but of a different kind, which is how the soft-shell turtle came to be on the same day as the painted turtle we see so often and love so much on Cape Cod.

Susan, a routine swimmer in Cape Cod’s ponds, is a self-taught naturalist, author, and artist. Learn more about Susan’s work here.

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