By ELISA LALA, Staff Writer

It is not uncommon to see a driver stop a vehicle in the middle of North Wildwood Boulevard to help a turtle safely cross the road, said Patrice Dorfman, leader behind the North Wildwood Terrapin Rescue project.

Dorfman is one of those people. Last summer, she and her nephew, Nick Plagge, drove up and down the boulevard, also known as state Route 147, two to three times per day doing just that.

Their short-term summer goal was to save as many turtles as they could from getting squashed on the treacherous stretch by leading them back toward the marshes. Throughout the summer, Dorfman and Plagge came across hundreds of terrapins crossing the boulevard. “Approximately 20 a day,” Dorfman said. They saved many of them, but 82 terrapins, based on their personal count, were not so lucky.

Dorfman said the summer months mean nesting season for the terrapin. In May, the turtles come out of the marshes to the top of the roadway to lay their eggs. They choose the side of the road because they seek high ground to nest on to avoid flooding. However, once they lay their eggs, their natural travel instinct is to keep on going and that means to head right into the line of 55 mph traffic, Dorfman said.

“As we know, they’re not too fast,” she said. “They’re inevitably going to get run over.”

To make matters even worse, she said, if a terrapin is lucky enough to win the game of chicken, it is then faced with another obstacle. There is a cement barrier in the center of the road separating opposing traffic lanes, which forces them to turn back and take the risk once more.

Plagge said the whole ordeal is also an issue for motorists, who often stop or swerve to assist or avoid the turtles.

“We’re not the only one doing this by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “We saw a handful of people each day doing the same thing we were doing, putting themselves in harm’s way to save the turtles’ lives.”

To help both parties remain safe, Dorfman is spearheading the North Wildwood Terrapin Rescue project. Its mission is to raise enough money to put up a barrier fence along the perimeter of the North Wildwood Boulevard to keep turtles off the asphalt.

Dorfman began the project in September 2010 and will continue until the fence goes up.

She said she has seen similar barriers used in other municipalities, such as along Stone Harbor Boulevard, Avalon Boulevard and in Margate, but the North Wildwood Boulevard is a bit tricky because it is a state road rather than a county road or privately owned piece of land. This means the island needs to get approval from the state first, which can be a tedious task.

Currently, Dorfman said, the rescue project is in the permit stage, and they will not give up until they get their fence. She and Plagge are confident they will do so, and have already gained many supporters, volunteers and Facebook fans, including the support of the Wetland Institute in Middle Township and state Sen. Jeff Van Drew.

The Wetlands Institute patrols a 40-mile stretch of road from Middle Township to Sea Isle City and Upper Township, Dorfman said. Unfortunately the institute does not have the funding or resources to expand the fencing program to North Wildwood Boulevard. However, the institute has been supportive in sharing knowledge and ideas.

The Institute has even taken the eggs from several dead terrapins Dorfman and Plagge found and incubated them, saving the babies. They should be released this summer, she said.

On March 12, supporters of the project, the Turtle Team, marched in the North Wildwood St. Patrick’s Day Parade, to raise money for the cause. After the parade, the team held a North Wildwood Terrapin Rescue fundraiser at Casey on Third, in North Wildwood.

The goal now is to get the barrier fence up as soon as possible.

“By May would be great,” Dorfman said. They will continue to seek donations and support from the community to help them move their project along and to save the terrapins.