HOLMBERG: Giant Asian pet turtle loose in a Chester swamp? Probably not.

Posted at 12:32 AM, Jun 13, 2013
and last updated 2013-06-13 00:32:41-04

CHESTER, Va. (WTVR) -- So what was that thing in the old James River channel swamp in Henricus Park?

On Tuesday, CBS-6 showed you the mysterious monster turtle lingering among the turtle-rich swamp beside the massive coal-fired Dominion power plant near Dutch Gap.

It was photographed by Brent Cavedo, who visits the wildlife habitat every day during his dinner break to relax and take photos.

“I thought maybe it was a snapping turtle,” he added. “But the back was like a big M shape. And I thought, ‘what is this guy?’”

Based on his photography and wildlife experience, he guesses the turtle was 6 feet long from its bug-eyed snout to the end of its whiplike tail.

J.D. Kleopfer, herpetologist with the state Department of Game and Island Fisheries saw our story and the photo we sent.

“First thought, my gut instinct was: big snapping turtle,” he said. “They’re not uncommon. Shells can get up to 19 inches long and they can weigh 50 pounds.” He said it’s also possible that it was two turtles engaging in mating behavior.

But Cavedo said he watched the creature swim around, moving as one unit. And the blunt nose –similar to a pug dog, as his wife, Judy Cavedo, said – is far different from the beak-like snout of a snapper.

Viewer Eric Hampton said he thinks the turtle could be a Yangtze giant softshell turtle, Rafetus swinhoei, from Vietnam and China. These monsters – the world’s largest freshwater turtles - have the right M-shaped back and pug-nose, he noted.

Could it have been one that was snuck into the country generations ago, before they became critically endangered?

But that species has a shorter tail.

A turtle expert with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science said the turtle could be some other foreign species that outgrew someone’s home, but she needs better pictures. It’s a huge turtle, she and everyone else agrees.

Kleopfer said conceivably it could be someone’s long-ago abandoned pet. “Turtles have been coming and going through the pet trades for years . . . it’s not impossible that someone released an exotic turtle there.” But he’s still pretty sure it’s an old snapper. They can develop valleys in their shells, he said.

Some species of larger turtles can live 70, 80, 90, even 100 years. Like parrots, they can far outlive an owner’s interest in them.

At least two other people have seen the monster swamp turtle, independent of photographer Cavedo and his wife.

Richard Huffman is one of them. “I was sitting here watching, feeding the ducks,” when he saw a huge turtle. “He was this big around,” he said, holding is arms as if cradling a truck tire. “I just saw it come up and ran to the car to get my phone, my binoculars. I came back and he was gone.”

He said he’s familiar with the snapping turtles and other common species there, and doesn’t have a clue what it was that he saw.

Kloepfer, with the game department, laughed when he was asked if it could be some kind of unknown creature in the swamp.

“You never know,” he said. “They can be alien space turtles.”