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Inside North Carolina's sea turtle sanctuary

The Topsail Turtle Project has been helping save imperilled sea turtles for 25 years. Meet Jean Beasley, the 81-year-old force of nature behind its success.

  • Aug 29, 2016
  • 1,217 words
  • 5 minutes
Jean Beasley, director of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre Expand Image

“You are standing in a hallway that I had to fire four architects over,” says Jean Beasley, sweeping her arm across the expanse of the corridor in question, located in a staff-only area of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City, N.C. “They kept wanting to make the hallways smaller and the building fancier, but we didn’t want that and we didn’t need that. One of the first things I learned was that you’ve got to have doors and halls that are big enough to get a turtle’s tank through!”

Beasley is the director of the centre, and her stick-to-your-guns attitude in the matter of the hallway is symbolic of the way the former teacher and school administrator seems to have almost willed this place into existence.

It’s personal for Beasley, after all — the centre is named for her daughter Karen, who died of leukemia in 1991 at the age of 29. Before she died, Karen started the Topsail Turtle Project in an effort to preserve and protect sea turtles in the region.

“We didn’t think much about the rehabilitation of turtles while Karen was alive,” says Beasley, “but after her death we saw more and more sick and injured turtles, and it was apparent that they needed somewhere to go. Karen passed the legacy on to me, and here I am, almost 25 years later.” 

The first turtle Beasley helped, a loggerhead nicknamed Lucky that had been injured by a boat, ended up in an unusual place. Beasley had taken the creature to the veterinary school at North Carolina State University in Raleigh for treatment, and when she asked if she could come back and visit the animal, she got a surprise.

“They said, ‘Oh no — it’s going back with you because we don’t have a place to keep it.’ Well, I didn’t have a place for it either, but I took it home and kept it in a washtub in my basement for a while.” 

Names of turtles that have been rescued and treated by the Karen Beasley Centre Expand Image
Beasley estimates the centre has saved some 650 turtles to date; these are just some of their names. (Photo: Harry Wilson)

By 1997, Beasley had overseen the construction of the centre’s first home, an 84-square-metre facility on a small lot leased from the town of Topsail Beach. In 2014, the centre moved to its current location, a 1300-square-metre facility in Surf City that has a fully-equipped operating room, an intensive care unit, laundry and kitchen facilities, a gift shop and a warehouse-like recovery room where turtles that can’t survive in the wild and turtles that are to be released back into the wild are kept in giant tanks of seawater. A vet visits the centre about once a month, but otherwise Beasley, who has no formal training, does most of the procedures herself.

“My training,” she says, “is the same training I have been a proponent of all my life as a teacher, which is that you learn what you love. If you’re interested in something … find out how to do it. After 20-some years and having been recognized as co-author on more than 20 scientific papers, I’m as professional as it gets doing this.” 

She’s come a long way since Lucky, that first turtle.

“You know what I did there? Patting. That’s it, just patting. Because it was absolutely frantic. So what do you do with a child or an adult that is upset and frantic? You hug ’em and you pat ’em. Well, I couldn’t really hug it, so I patted it. I was absolutely winging it. Since then it’s certainly gone far beyond that. We do wound-cleaning here that is extraordinary.” 

Sweetpea, a loggerhead sea turtle scheduled for release back into the wild Expand Image
Sweetpea, a loggerhead turtle successfully treated at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre and scheduled for release back into the wild. (Photo: Harry Wilson)

Beasley says the centre and its volunteer staff has saved about 650 turtles to date, all of which were either loggerhead, green or Kemp’s Ridley turtles, the latter the most highly endangered species of sea turtle in the world.

The animals come in with a litany of injuries, many of which are human-related. Some have ingested or become tangled in fishing line. Some have swallowed wickedly barbed fishing hooks or plastic waste such as straws, six-pack rings or swimming goggles. Some have wounds caused by boat propellers or, as Beasley suspects in at least one case, a machete. Other have been exposed to toxic chemicals, which burn away their flesh or damage their lungs, or water that is 10°C or less, a situation known as cold stunning.

Beasley estimates the centre’s recovery rate is about 90 per cent, an incredible number that she attributes to the support of the often more than 1,000 paying visitors a day (an astonishing fact in itself, given the centre is open to the public just 20 hours per week) and the people she works with.

“Tours are the main fundraiser,” says Beasley. “We’ve been so fortunate, because the staff’s hard work means that we don’t have to say ‘That drug’s too expensive, we can’t pay for it.’ We can use the best cutting-edge best methods that there are, which is one of the reasons we have such a great recovery rate.” 

Treating and rehabilitating the turtles is a full-time job — one that’s not easy or cheap, but always rewarding.

“Turtles are among the most ancient creatures on the planet,” she says. “They predate dinosaurs. They survived a lot to make it this far, this long. They’re the focal point of our mission, which is to call attention to the fact that it’s not just sea turtles but every living thing on the planet that needs to have a clean environment, a safe environment.”

Then there are those inspired by that mission, namely the centre’s volunteers and interns, who come from across North America get hands-on experience with the turtles.

“You never know who might be that one person who gets turned on and helps save the world,” says Beasley. “My deepest wish for those that might have the opportunity to visit here is that they go away with a new or renewed dedication to the challenge before us all of making the planet a safer place for every living thing, not just people.”

Caring for sea turtles: by the numbers 
Here’s a quick look at what it takes to run the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center.
US$1.5 million: The cost of the new facility, which opened in 2014
US$1,200: The average price of a large tank used to hold a sea turtle
1,200: The weight in pounds of capelin, a soft-boned fish used to feed the turtles, purchased every month
 1,000: The weight in pounds of squid purchased every month
5,000: The weight in pounds of salt used to make salt water every month
30,000: The amount in gallons of water used in the sea turtles’ tanks
4: The number of stages of filtration water goes through before going into the tanks

See more from Harry Wilson’s visit to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre on Twitter


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