North Carolina Volunteers Show Passion for Sea Turtles

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For about half of the year, sea turtles often can be found somewhere in North Carolina waters. They likely could be seen from a pier in the Atlantic Ocean, but it’s possible for the endangered, highly thought of reptiles to be found in portions of the Pamlico Sound or Cape Fear River.

While sea turtles might call North Carolina home before migrating elsewhere prior to winter, scores of volunteers from up and down the coast are wrapped up in caring for these animals year-round like any other kind of livestock. That’s especially true for Jean Beasley, who has operated one of the few rescue hospitals in the country dedicated exclusively to sea turtles. And Beasley has done it for more than a decade.

“A lot of our success in caring for the turtles is because people are passionate about it. They are willing to put in whatever it takes to care for the turtles,” Beasley says.

Beasley oversees the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center at Topsail Beach. The facility, which treats sea turtles for as long as four years with a squadron of more than 150 volunteers and student interns, is named in honor of Beasley’s daughter who died of leukemia at age 29 and had a great love for sea turtles.

Beasley and dozens of other volunteer-based organizations are overseen by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Because sea turtles fall under the Endangered Species Act, a large number of federal and state regulations are involved with ensuring these animals are protected and handled properly.

The commission licenses volunteer groups that fulfill two critical roles. Volunteers often scour beaches for turtle nests during egg-laying season between May 1 and Aug. 31. These volunteers also respond to calls if a sea turtle has washed ashore with an injury or has gotten sick because of foreign substances in the water.

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New Hanover County Farm Bureau Member Kim Meyer is part of the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project. Coordinator Nancy Fahey described what Meyer and the rest of the more than 100 members have in common.

“I like to think we’re all like-minded individuals who have an appreciation for our planet,” Fahey says. “We have a great appreciation for conservation and preserving the environment. This is a great way to get involved.”

Matthew Godfrey, who serves as the sea turtle biologist for the commission, travels often to train volunteers and coordinate efforts with several other entities that have sea turtles on their radar. That cluster includes the National Parks Service to monitor the beaches at Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras, as well as the Department of Defense since there are miles of shoreline and possible nesting areas at Camp Lejuene.

“Essentially, it’s a huge network of people working together to manage the conservation of sea turtles,” Godfrey says.

The commission recently attempted to quantify a dollar figure since volunteers are asked to keep estimates of how much time they give toward the care of sea turtles. Godfrey indicated the value is more than $500,000 annually.

“They’re extremely dedicated. Clearly if they were not interested, they would not put that kind of time and energy into it,” Godfrey says. “We would not be able to do a small percentage of the things that get done with sea turtles without them.”

Beasley, Fahey and Godfrey all concur that the rising population growth along the coast and greater recreational use of waterways and beaches has stirred a higher demand for sea turtle rescue services. They’ve seen everything from hatchlings inadvertently wandering into a hotel swimming pool to an adult sea turtle being severely injured by a boat propeller.

“I wish I knew what attracts people to turtles, because I would love to bottle it,” Beasley says. “The turtles have a worldwide audience and have worldwide fans. Kids especially respond to turtles in a way I can’t explain.”

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