Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City gives turtles a fighting chance in the wild.
On the chilly January day that I was originally scheduled to interview Jean Beasley, executive director and founder of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rehabilitation and Rescue Center, she and her volunteer staff were scrambling to find enough plastic tubs to treat 47 of the cold-stunned sea turtles that had recently washed ashore along local beaches.
Although such mass rescues are rare, it’s not uncommon for the sea turtle hospital (as it’s called by locals) to receive new patients year round. The turtle patients suffer from a variety of injuries ranging from propeller lacerations and swallowed fishing hooks to trash entanglement and the bends … and everything in between.
At the hospital, they receive a full medical evaluation, diligent care and lots of love. The ultimate goal is to rehabilitate the injured turtles and return them to the ocean, regardless of how long it takes.
Almost 50 years ago, Jean Beasley and her daughter, Karen, were chatting on an oceanfront deck on Topsail Island when a sea turtle suddenly emerged from the ocean and worked its way through the sand, stopping directly under their deck to lay its eggs.
This chance encounter instilled a passion within both women to protect sea turtles and their hatchlings along the full 26-mile coastline of Topsail Island. Toward this effort, Karen organized the island’s first beach patrol, in which she and her mother walked the beach every night looking for the telltale signs of turtle tracks in the sand. As word spread, they were gifted with an ATV to make their nightly searches more efficient, all the while reporting every sighting to the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.
“We got a call from them saying, ‘Are you sure you know what sea turtle tracks are?’” Jean says, laughing. “They didn’t think there were any nesting on the island anymore. Turns out we are one of the most dense nesting places in the state.”
When Karen passed away from leukemia, Jean continued to watch over the sea turtles. In 1996 she and other beach patrol volunteers acquired their first injured turtle and discovered that there wasn’t a turtle-specific hospital to send it to.
“We love the aquarium system,” Jean says. “I was on the advisory board for the Fort Fisher Aquarium for about 20 years, and they’re great backup. But there really was not a place for turtles to go where they were the primary focus.”
So, with persistence and a lot of help from volunteers and donors, Jean opened the first Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center – a roughly 900-square-foot building named in her daughter’s honor, located on the island along Banks Channel.
Word about the hospital quickly spread to the three North Carolina aquariums, fishermen, beachfront owners and pier managers, who supplied Jean with a steady stream of injured sea turtles.
Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release
The little hospital quickly outgrew its capacity for both turtles and visitors. Jean and her volunteers recognized that they needed a larger facility, and after almost 15 years of fundraising and planning, the hospital relocated to its current 13,000-square-foot building on the mainland in Surf City. Today the facility can care for up to 100 rescued turtles at a time and offers extensive medical capabilities.
The hospital’s medical director is Dr. Craig Harms, a world-renowned researcher in the field of marine animals who is based out of the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST) at N.C. State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The sea turtle hospital is also closely connected with several local individuals, including Dr. Steve Anderson of Paws & Claws Animal Hospital in Wilmington.
Each turtle is registered upon its arrival, and its treatment methods are well-documented. Jean and Dr. Harms do medical rounds by phone, discussing the current case list and everything that’s been happening with each turtle since their last conversation. They are also creating a central database of former and current patients, which currently includes information on approximately 1,500 turtles.
Once turtles are nursed back to health, it’s time to release them. “It’s a fabulous experience to be able to send them back home,” Jean says.
Turtle releases typically occur at the beach in the summer, but in special circumstances they are taken by boat to the Gulf Stream in the colder months.
On a Mission
Jean Beasley is on a mission for more than just rehabilitating turtles. Preservation of the environment as a whole is an equal, if not greater, reason she continues to volunteer at the hospital daily, even at the age of 84.
“It’s an interesting thing really, that I didn’t identify [the turtles’] needs earlier,” she reflects. “The need is for somebody to take up the message that it’s not just about sea turtles, it’s about the planet and all the bad things that are happening to kill our species at an alarming rate.”
Following this epiphany, Jean, a former teacher, incorporated education about the turtles and environmental conservation into the hospital’s public tours. In addition, she is proactively protecting her immediate environment by creating a nature preserve on site.
“We have an extensive campus, and one day we hope to have a nature trail,” she says. “Right now, we have birdhouses, plants that attract butterflies and a garden that is designed for pollinators. We also have our own beehives, and we use honey to treat wounds on the turtles. There is so much still to be done, but we are making such great strides.”
As a nonprofit organization with only two paid staff members (a business manager and a water technician; everyone else, including Jean herself, is an unpaid volunteer), the sea turtle hospital relies on donations to pay the bills and properly care for the turtles.
“Anything that we have, including this building, belongs to the sea turtles,” Jean says. “My criteria for buying anything, updating anything, whatever it is, is first and foremost: What will this do for the turtles? It’s their money.”
Want to Visit?
Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center
302 Tortuga Lane, Surf City
$3 (children 12 and younger)
$4 (seniors and military)
$5 (general admission 13 and older)
Additional donations are welcome.
Note that the hospital is closed in the winter.
April: The hospital opens to visitors on a two-day per week schedule.
June: The hospital transitions to a five-day per week schedule.
Hours and days of the week vary; please check the hospital’s website and Facebook page prior to your visit.