Jean Beasley never thought that at her age she'd have to learn the electrical and plumbing trades. "If anyone told me I'd be doing this at age 71, I'd have told them they were crazy," said Beasley, as she sawed off the end of a pipe. But the skills come in handy when you're caring for sick and injured turtles, a job that doesn't end, not even when the "Closed for the Winter" sign goes up in front of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. On a typical winter day, the manpower that goes into caring for the more than 15 sick and injured turtles recuperating there keeps volunteers in a constant scurry.
"People think when we close the doors and put the sign up that nothing goes on here," Beasley said while carefully lifting a blue tank holding one small turtle. "They are very mistaken. There is never a lull." College and high school interns are absent in winter months, adding more work to the local volunteers' load.
"We take the responsibility of the daily chores that the interns do in the summer," volunteer Tina Navale of Surf City said. "But we love it."
The daily routine includes a morning feeding, as each turtle has a diet tailored to its species and health, followed by vitamins and any needed health care.
"I am constantly watching the progression of their wounds, monitoring them with physicals," said Beasley, director of the center. "We do blood work and monitor how they're eating, what they look like, what their attitude is like." Next comes the cleaning, when tanks are scooped for leftover food and the amount of food eaten is recorded. Then come the chores.
Last week, Beasley and Navale spent an entire day connecting the tanks of three new turtles to the plumbing system. The turtles require special attention in the winter, as temperature is key in keeping them warm and on a speedy recovery. Most sea turtles have already migrated this time of year to warmer waters, but some don't make it and end up in the center due to what Beasley calls being "cold-stunned."
"The warmth of the building and the water is very important," she said. "We have to have all of the turtles inside and closed up. That is why we can't have any visitors in the winter, because there is no room to move in here." Working space is cramped, lined with equipment, food, towels and cleaning supplies. A space between the more than 20 tanks in the center is so tight that two people can't pass there at the same time.
"We hope to start building a new center soon," Beasley said. "We had land donated and we are getting the deed drawn up now. We really can't do anything until the transfer." The center isn't solely waiting on the deed of the new land, which is just outside the city limits of Surf City. Funding is key, and there is much more to raise. "We not only have to look at the new building, but run this one," Beasley said. "It costs in excess of $70,000 to run this building each year. So we have to raise more than that."
Beasley hopes to someday see an 18,000-square-foot center, which would cost upward of $1 million. Until then, volunteers will continue to do their best to heal their prized patients. "One in 5,000 to 10,000 turtles survive to be an adult," Beasley said. "So these animals in here represent a lot of turtles that died. That's what makes them so very important."
This year's nesting season on Topsail Island's 26-mile stretch produced 94 nests, though quite a few were lost with high tides during Tropical Storm Ernesto over the summer.
Nests are constantly monitored during the summer, keeping volunteers in all three island towns busy night and day. And turtles are constantly being cared for in preparation for their release. Staff had to say a difficult goodbye to longtime resident sea turtle "Bay" recently. The green sea turtle was found tangled in a flounder net and was admitted to the hospital in 2001. After numerous procedures, Bay was still unable to be released into the wild and required permanent care. The staff found a home for her at the Minnesota Zoo.
"We become quite attached to them and it was hard to see her go," Beasley said. "We begin to see their personalities, how each one responds to a certain volunteer better than another. They recognize our voices."
Turtles can only be released in warm waters, so the center only releases its healthy turtles during the summer season. That means that the current patients are tucked in for the winter. "And looking after them is an everyday job," Beasley said. "We do it all year long."