October 18, 2021

Topanga Turtles Feeling the Heat



Topanga Turtles Feeling the Heat

A pond turtle looking for water in Topanga. This summer marks the fourth year that the main turtle pond has been dry and the small refugia pools are dropping fast.

As temperatures in early July continued to hover over 90 degrees Farenheit, our local native western pond turtle neighbors are searching for refuge.

This summer marks the fourth year in a row that the main turtle pond has been dry, and the small refugia pools are dropping fast. Thanks to the Resource Conservation District's (RCD) wonderful group of volunteers, last fall we were able to hand-carry 200 gallons of water per week almost half a mile to keep the refugia pools going, but they were already low again by May 2015.

Since August 2014, we have found more than 50 dead turtles. This is a very large percentage of the 350 individuals we have tagged since 2002. Most appear to have died of starvation, as they can only feed when in the water. Raccoons also maimed and killed at least a few.

Four turtles are now missing parts of their legs and many are missing parts of their tails. Turtle #169 is a feisty female turtle that we have named “Blackie,” after the Black Knight in the Monty Python movie that gets chopped up but does not give up—“It’s only a flesh wound!”

Both her front legs were eaten off to the shoulder bone. We first met her in 2004, which means she is at least 15 years old, possibly a few years older. She is not ever going to be able to survive again in the wild.

Clearly we need a new plan to keep the turtles going through this summer.

Tim Hovey, biologist with CA Department of Fish and Wildlife has been really supportive of this effort. He rescued the turtles from Lake Elizabeth last year and has seen first-hand what happens when the water disappears.

Only 52 turtles in that population survived and are being held in captivity until the lake levels are restored. Throughout the state, these amazing native turtles are disappearing along with the water. They are listed as endangered and threatened in Washington and Oregon.

Our local population is genetically unique and an important part of the biodiversity of the Southern California population.

Cali-Camp and Manzanita School have stepped up to help with a small refugia pool located on the property that was already part of the normal turtle habitat circuit. Best of all, we can get a hose to it!

We found eight turtles already there, so with the permission of CDFW, we began to create a sanctuary to temporarily protect the turtles until the rains come again this fall. We have had experts from various turtle groups give us suggestions on setting up a temporary sanctuary that will support the turtles for the next few months and have begun working on implementation.

On June 19, we searched all the known spots where we have found turtles since 2002. We caught a total of 33 individuals throughout the drainage, but sadly, also found 13 more dead turtles. Another died shortly after we found her with her guts hanging out of her shell after a predator left.

After measuring them, the living turtles were released into the turtle sanctuary pool. All of them have lost weight and look emaciated. We found only one female with one egg, and only three juveniles under a year old. It looks like we will need to keep checking these places to rescue any turtles left behind.

Keeping turtles in and raccoons out is not simple! Both are incredible climbers and not intimidated by sheer rock walls. Engineering fencing that will work has proven to be a big challenge, and we need help. Please put on your thinking caps and send me your ideas on how we might solve these problems. Contributions of materials, design and construction skills, time, and money are all needed.

Below are the issues and locations.


Keeping turtles in
—We need to come up with a way to prevent turtles from climbing out of the pool, up the rocks and escaping. The rock wall is curved and, since this is a temporary effort, we want to avoid drilling bolts into the rock. We think that rigging a weighted line with recycled water bottles threaded end-to-end could somehow be secured to the rock just above the water line.

Turtles crawling out would get to this and not be able to get over it when the bottles roll. Any other ideas are welcome! We also need to collect at least 100 empty 8-ounce water bottles to make this work.

Keeping raccoons out—The electric perimeter fence has been too easy to breach. After we did a major upgrade to the system, a mother raccoon and three kits stopped by to play. We have now strung even more wire and put a water container for them outside the fence, hoping that it will keep them from exploring the pond!

Shade needed—As the temperatures continue to rise, the algal blooms will explode in the pond. We need help figuring out how to obtain and string a 10’ x 20’ shade cloth/tarp to cover part of the pool. No bolts allowed! HELP!

Aeration—We have purchased two solar powered aerators and hope these will do the job. They only work in direct sunlight, so we get intermittent action, but it should be okay.

Water—Although there is still a small trickle of water draining into the sanctuary pool, we anticipate needing to add water during the summer.

It takes 400 feet of hose to get from the faucet to the pool, which costs us $200 and does not cover reimbursing Cali-Camp for any water we may need. Fortunately, this cost was covered by the grant we received from Supervisor Yaroslavsky before he left.

Basking opportunities—Turtles love to get out of the water to bask. Thanks to Jayni Shuman and Delmar Lathers, we now have a lovely log, and Christine Light contributed some wonderful floating bark. All good here!

Food—Turtles are omnivores that like a wide variety of food, from algae filled with small insects to tadpoles to fish. Thanks to local pond designer Don Hamburger (Aquasphere), we now have some native water clover and sedges along the edge of the pond to add a bit of shade as well as food. Seining in the fishpond at Cali-Camp provided hundreds of tiny carp and mosquito fish, which we have also put into the pool, along with canned sardines. We anticipate needing to get a larger variety of food items and continue supplemental feeding at least weekly until the rains come.

Security—We have borrowed two motion detection cameras to help us keep tabs on who is coming and going to the pool, but we need to purchase ones that we can dedicate to this effort. Total cost is $350.


Christine Light, collection manager at the Behler Chelonian Center in Ojai stopped by to help us determine how best to care for Blackie’s wounded front legs, Lucky’s (#38) missing back leg, and to check out the other injured turtles. Two were well enough to be released back into the sanctuary pool, but Blackie and Lucky still have bare bone exposed and need to be rehabilitated in captivity. Blackie will not be able to go wild ever again.

A temporary “Turtle Spa” has been set up inside the drying cage at the RCD office, which prevents any raccoons from visiting. However, it is difficult to keep the water clean and aerated, as well as provide adequate basking and hiding spots for our legless resident turtles. While this is okay for now, we definitely need to come up with a better habitat for the long term.

Pond liner—We have found a liner that is the right size (100 gallons), but it costs $250. Beth Burnham has kindly offered her landscape crew to help dig it in.

Protective cage—We need to build a cage that will protect the turtles from predators while allowing access for cleaning, feeding and treating the injured turtles. Ideally, this will be large enough to provide space for some plants and slanted basking areas that are accessible to handicapped turtles. Maurice Bourget and Clark Stevens have contributed their time to help design the cage. Now we need to come up with the materials and funds to build it.

Aeration and filtration—The solar aerators will help, as will filtering aquatic plants, but adding an actual filter system has been recommended. We are still trying to figure out which kind would be best for turtles as most are designed for fish! Any suggestions?

Thus far, our efforts have been funded by a $6,000 grant we received from Supervisor Yaroslavsky before he left office and donations from turtle lovers. We did not anticipate needing to spend $1,400 for fencing and security around the sanctuary pool, and even with donations of labor and materials, the construction of a rehab pool at the RCD office will cost at least an additional $800, even with some donated materials and labor.

We are grateful to Cali-Camp for letting us catch minnows in their fishpond to feed the turtles, but are also spending additional funds on other foods to provide a well-rounded diet that mimics their wild preferences.


This is a desperate time. Ideas, skills, materials, money, all are crucial to making this work. If we are going to prevent the last remaining reproductively viable population of this species from going extinct in the wilds of the Santa Monica Mountains, we have to come up with some funds to cover these expenses.

Every little bit helps, so please consider a tax deductible donation to the RCDSMM (Turtle Fund, 540 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga, CA 90290).

Topanga’s turtles thank you.


Lydia #92 (born?—died June 2015)
—One of the turtles we first met in May 2002, Lydia was the smallest adult female that carried one of the radio tags. We initially found her in a small pool located at the base of a 30-foot sandstone wall. She was the most amazing climber and we eventually tracked her as she climbed up the wall, hiked almost half a mile to the main pond, visited with her friends there and then returned to the waterfall pool, all in a day or so. We could not figure out how she managed to get back and forth so quickly, until one time we happened to see her leap from the top of the waterfall and land in the pool below. One crazy turtle! We had not seen her since 2004, but Delmar Lathers found her in January 2015 exploring near some of the refugia pools, looking for food. We were heartbroken to find her dead in the waterfall pool six months later. It appeared that she had starved.

Margo #167 (born ?—died June 2015)—Another amazing adult female turtle first tagged in 2002. She was one of the turtles that gathered every summer morning with four of her friends at one spot in the main pond. After visiting together for an hour or so, they would each go their own way, only to convene again in the same place at the same time the next morning. A very social turtle for sure! It looked as if she also had died of starvation.