NEW YORK CITY — Most travelers head to John F. Kennedy International Airport to consummate their nuptials on a tropical island, but one species finds the concrete runway more than sufficient.
Diamondback terrapins are leaving the security of their home in Jamaica Bay and are wandering onto active taxiways and runways for their annual migration nesting ritual, which just happens to take place on the southeast end of neighboring JFK Airport, officials said.
So far, 396 turtles have been spotted crossing into JFK Airport during this year's migration, which is currently underway and is expected to last through mid-July, according to The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. That number is nearly double last year’s when 163 turtles were carried off the runway and placed back on their salt marsh property. The Port Authority cites runway construction as the reason the number was lower in 2015.
Rather than lay their eggs in peace on a quiet beach as the hard-shelled creatures in other parts of the world do, these New York turtles opt for the sand that lines the airport perimeter, experts said.
One turtle proceeded to lay several eggs on Runway 4 Left at JFK this week, the end of runway close to the turtles’ bordering salt marsh habitat, officials said.
If a turtle is spotted on the runway while a plane is taxiing, a pilot will stop and wait for it to either walk away or else get cleared from the path by airport authorities, officials said. There has been no operational impact reported yet this year according to Delta and JetBlue, the two largest domestic carriers operating at JFK. However, they said in past years the turtle trek have caused some flight delays.
“As curious as it was to have the annual influx of turtles, we appreciate the efforts by the Port Authority to keep them safely away from the runways... and we're sure the turtles appreciate it too,” said JetBlue Airways Spokesperson Morgan Johnston.
The Port Authority has implemented several safety measures to try to curb the reptiles from putting themselves in harm’s way and clogging up traffic at an already congested airport. Two years ago, they installed cylindrical plastic barriers along the airport perimeter to keep the turtles in their natural habitat. According to data from the Port Authority, the number of terrapins decreased nearly 50% after the barriers went up.
Spotted turtles are collected by wildlife specialists who work for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the US Department of Agriculture, who round up the shelled slowpokes. They mark their shells with numbers, measure them, and insert electronic tags so they can keep track of their growth, location, and population size. They also take molds, called casting, which helps determine the size and age of the turtle.
According to PETA, if you see a turtle crossing the road (or runway as the case may be), they recommend you help them along on their path in the same direction in which they were headed.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns several hundred acres of wetlands in the tristate area and has injected more than $120 million since 2002 to preserve the wildlife.