Sea Turtle Hospital

If your timing is just right, you might run across a herd of people swarming the beach, all at one time and in one specific spot. Find a parking space if you can and elbow your way into the thick of things, because you are just in time for a sea turtle release. This is an official occasion when a patient at The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital has recuperated sufficiently and is ready to be returned to the wild. Events such as this are fiercely celebrated with ribbons lining the runway, official turtle escorts, cheering crowds, signs and banners waving in the blue skies over the Atlantic Ocean.

“We can’t announce a turtle release at the request of the police department,” said Jean Beasley who, for more than ten years, has taken in sick or injured sea turtles and nursed them back to health at a small facility located at 822 Carolina Boulevard. “We have sometimes as many as 500 school children, and the school children know because we invite them and they get a front row seat.”

Word goes out from there, as neighbors and relatives pass it along, and regular visitors figure it out pretty quick when they see the stage being set on the beach. “The children make a flag for their school and they also get to select several sea turtle ambassadors who get to walk down with the turtles,” Beasley said. “Sometimes it is one they have adopted and they carry signs that they make, which tell the crowd who that turtle is. So, they get a big kick out of it.”

Nobody gets a bigger kick out of it than a turtle that smells the saltwater and begins flapping and bucking to get at it. If it is a big turtle, and most of them are at least a couple hundred pounds, then three people are trying to maintain a grip on it to carry it from the dunes, through the fanfare, down to the water’s edge.

The turtles don’t leave without a commencement address, and Beasley says she gives them a good talking-to prior to their release. Point one, despite all the nurturing care they received at the hospital, stay away from people. “Stay away from nets, stay away from hooks, and stay away from toxic stuff and plastic.” Those are the sorts of things that landed them in the hospital in the first place, along with boat hulls, boat propellers, and in a few isolated cases, adverse encounters with sharks.

Crowd Control Issues

Because the facility is small, staffed by volunteers, and the turtles’ needs are large, the hospital doors are open to the public from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. on weekdays, early June through Labor Day. And because the hours are limited, the lines outside the hospital can look like the cordoned lines of people in Disney World waiting to get on a fast ride. “Folks are discouraged because they come to visit in the summertime and they see 300 people lined up,” Beasley said. “We can’t be open in the mornings because we have to look after the turtles then. They have to be fed, they have to be medicated, and it’s very tight.”

An awning is set up to shade hordes of visitors from the sun, and a gift shop under a pitched tent in front of the building provides some limited amusement for those who wait. Visitors wait, rain or shine, carrying umbrellas and babies, moving at a tortoise pace until they are admitted to the yard behind the building, where large water pumps gurgle in huge tanks. Plans for a new facility are underway for sometime near the end of 2010.

A new facility is under construction in the mainland portion of Surf City, behind the Surf City Community Center. “It’s down Tortuga Drive, ‘tortuga’ of course being Spanish for turtle,” she said. “We have 12,400-some square feet. That will house an indoor gift shop and it also will house a surgical wing where we will be able to give more complete veterinary care as well as physical therapy and other neat things which we have not been able to do.”

The expansion plans also include the addition of a classroom. I’m a former teacher,” Beasley said, “and the educational impact is very important to me. We have six to eight college interns that are here for the summer for 12 weeks and we have high school kids that stay for two weeks and get the training and work directly with the turtles.” It’s one sneaky way to recruit more hands to pitch in and help, but it is way bigger than that. “The only way we are ever going to solve the problem is through education and understanding. There is a broader picture here and we do teach conservation. The turtles have been around for hundreds of thousands of years and they are trying to tell us something.”

In the Beginning

The first rehab turtle in 1995 was cared for in a volunteer’s backyard, and it had to be taken to Florida for the winter. Beasley persuaded the Town of Topsail Beach to let her put a prefab structure on a sound-side municipal lot, something with heat and insulation, which gave her a scant 850 square feet in which to work. Several years prior to that, her daughter Karen was conducting a beach program called Turtle Talks that continue to this day, each Wednesday at 3:45 p.m. during the summer months. Karen was 29 years old when she died of leukemia. “Her insurance money is what we had to start the hospital,” Beasley said.

Today, anywhere from 35 to 50 volunteers care for an ever-increasing number of hospitalized turtles, while something like 100 volunteers patrol the beach for signs of turtle tracks leading to nests. When a nest is found, it is roped off and closely monitored, even a round-the-clock guard when hatching time is at hand. North Carolina State’s College of Veterinary Medicine is the turtles’ primary medical provider, and a volunteer has to drive a newly-admitted patient to Raleigh and back the same day. “They don’t have any facilities. They don’t have a bed for a sea turtle. We have a very close relationship and that is the largest item in our budget.”

Another single-minded effort of the turtle volunteers has been to fill the vacation rental houses and condos with printed materials containing sufficient information to keep the beach visitors from unwittingly harming the turtles. Signs posted on kitchen counters and refrigerators advise to turn off outside lights and refrain from using flashlights on the beach. “We even go to the extreme of having street lights turned off near where they nest,” she said. “The electric company does that for us because turtles are disoriented by the light. They go to the nearest light – that is their instinct – and if we weren’t here it would be the horizon.

Beasley added, “Don’t try to stop them or get in their way. It’s illegal. It’s a violation of federal law.” All sea turtle species are either endangered or threatened, and are listed in the Endangered Species Act. Most sea turtle species live about 100 years, and there are seven species worldwide. Five of the seven migrate along the East Coast and three show up at the hospital regularly. The loggerhead is the most common seen in North Carolina, followed by green sea turtles and then Kemp’s Ridley.

In the new facility, hospital visitation hours will be extended, Turtle Talks will be held in the adjacent wetlands, and admission will likely be charged.