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Nursing Sea Turtles Back to Health in North Carolina
By Tom Adkinson

SURF CITY, N.C. – Family legacies normally are passed down, but in this coastal North Carolina community just up from Wilmington, one was passed up. It’s the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, known to many simply as the Turtle Hospital.

Here you can visit loggerhead, green and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles being nursed back to health for eventual return to their wandering ocean ways. They “checked in” at the Turtle Hospital after encounters with boat propellers, fishing nets, oil spills, plastic shopping bags, and other manmade hazards.

sea turtles
Jean Beasley looks admiringly at the main room of the Turtle Hospital and its array of rehabilitation tanks. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Over the past 20 years, the hospital staff has cared for and released approximately 700 sea turtles, all because a grade school girl witnessed the wonder of a mama turtle’s laying her eggs on the beach. The little girl, Karen Beasley, became fascinated with protecting and preserving sea turtles.

Before leukemia took Karen’s life in 1991 at age 29, she told her mother, Jean, to use her life insurance proceeds “to do something good for sea turtles.”

Karen passed her legacy up, and Jean still is hands-on and active in a totally volunteer operation that has 70 hospital workers, 150 beach walkers to protect turtle nests and legions of fans from near and far.

Jean loves explaining that donations and other support, not tax dollars, built and run the center, noting that “tax dollars should go to education, veterans and other needs.”

“I like it when a child who raised money with a lemonade stand arrives with a baggie containing $1.27. That child will love animals forever,” Jean said.

injured sea turtle
There are 70 volunteers who care for injured sea turtles. Up to a dozen vulunteers are at the hospital daily. Image by Tom Adkinson.

The hospital started near the beach, but it now has a custom-built 13,750-square-foot home inland. It’s not flashy, but the distressed turtles don’t care a bit, especially considering the hospital offers surgery, radiology, physical therapy and good food.

The pantry includes capelin (a forage fish in the smelt family), squid, conch, shrimp and crab. The servings don’t look appetizing to humans, but the turtles are happy with the fare.

“If we have a really sick turtle, he’ll get soft-shell crab at $2.70 a pound. Sometimes, the turtles eat better than we do,” Jean said with a laugh.

Plant eaters get romaine lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, kale, bell peppers and jalapeno peppers.

“In the wild, they will eat a man-of-war, so jalapenos are fine,” Jean said when asked whether hot peppers were a good idea.

sea turtle sculpture
This whimsical sea turtle sculpture actually tells a story because it is made with harmful plastic trash left on the beach. Image by Tom Adkinson.

The hospital’s biggest room is filled with huge blue plastic tubs, each with a recovering turtle, maybe more. Natural light filters in so the turtles experience the day/night rhythm they would if they weren’t patients. Rehabilitation could be a matter of days or up to three years. Jean and the volunteers have all the time in the world.

sea turtle names
Each sea turtle patient gets a name, and they are recorded on a wall. There’s a story behind most of them, including Banzai, Yogi and Wiggles. Image by Tom Adkinson.


The Coast Guard helps with releases out in the Gulf Stream, but most recovered patients are released on the beach at Topsail, often with media coverage, which could be a bonus to your vacation memories. Four were released the day before I visited – a green, a loggerhead, and two Kemp’s ridleys.

In addition to seeing turtles, a hospital visit includes displays about nesting, the various sea turtle species, surgery procedures and the danger beach trash represents to turtles. A turtle sculpture tells the trash story well – it’s attractive until you realize it is made of bubble wrap, sand pails, goggles, bottle caps, fishing line and other items carelessly abandoned on the beach.

The turtle trivia you learn is fun, too. For instance:

• Kemp’s ridley turtles mature (meaning they can reproduce) at age 10 and can live to be 125.
• Loggerhead and green turtles don’t mature until their late 30s and can live more than a century.
• Sea turtles are an illustration of TSD, temperature sex determination. Warmer eggs produce females, while cooler eggs produce males.

“Sea turtles are such graceful, beautiful creatures. As species, they have survived since before dinosaurs. What they can’t adapt to is humans’ effects on their habitat,” Jean said.

surf city
Surf City is just up the coast from Wilmington, and it proudly proclaims its status as a sea turtle sanctuary. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Trip-planning resources:, Pender County Tourism and

Published October 27, 2017

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