Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital

The local police department strictly prohibits hospital volunteers from announcing a sea turtle, occasions that are already a little too well-attended for comfort even without the advance publicity. Jean Beasley has run the hospital for more than ten years, taking in sick or injured sea turtles and nursing them back to health.

Chances are you'll find a "closed" sign on the door, even in the summertime. Giving the public a chance to see the turtles is low priority; the number one goal is to help the turtles recover from adverse encounters with nets, hooks, toxins, plastics, boat hulls, boat propellers, even shark attacks.

As many as 500 school children attend the release of a turtle hospital patient, and they come because they are invited, despite the local precinct's protests. Word of mouth does the rest, as family and friends pass it along, and then when a good-sized crowd assembles on the beach, random beachgoers wander over to see what's going on.

They're in for a treat. A runway is marked with ribbons, in effect a parade route from the dunes to the sea. The children make flags, signs and banners, and they elect several sea turtle ambassadors from among themselves to officially escort the turtle. Adult volunteers do the actual turtle carrying and, if it's a big turtle — and most of them are — it's a big job.

Once a turtle reaches the dunes and smells that salt water, it begins flapping and bucking to get at it. Weighing on average at least a couple hundred pounds, it tests the strength and endurance of the three people trying to maintain a grip on it long enough to carry it from the dunes, through the cheering crowd and down to the water's edge.

There might even be a speech or two. The hospital volunteers like to emphasize the point that, despite all the nurturing care the turtles received at the hospital, they are well-advised to stay away from people.

Visiting the patients

The facility is small, only about 850 square feet, and it's staffed by all volunteers. For this reason visiting hours are extremely limited, 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. on weekdays, early June through Labor Day. And that's why, during those brief hours, the lines outside the hospital swell to numbers that deeply concern the local police department.

It's not unusual to see 300 people in cordoned lines, baking in the hot sun, awaiting their turn to be allowed into the hospital's back yard, where huge tanks are set all around and huge pumps gurgle away. An awning partially shades the line-standers and a gift shop under a pitched tent in front of the building provides some limited amusement for those who wait.

And they do wait, rain or shine, carrying umbrellas and babies, in a line that moves at a tortoise pace. Circling traffic pauses long enough to look at the line, confer among driver and passengers, and with shaking heads drive away. It's not an amusement park, for crying out loud, and the kids are guaranteed to get cranky.

All of which is slated for a big change in late 2010.

New digs

A new sea turtle hospital is under construction in the mainland portion of Surf City, on the other side of the swing bridge, behind the Surf City Community Center. It will be, for both turtles and volunteers, the promised land, a huge expansion to 12,400-some square feet of floor space.

That's not only plenty of patient care space but enough room to house an indoor gift shop and a surgical wing, where complete veterinary care will include physical therapy and other new things that will just surprise the flippers off the current patient population.

In the new facility, hospital visitation hours will be extended, Turtle Talks will be held in the adjacent wetlands and, for a change that might help reduce the crowd size, admission will likely be charged.

Also the new quarters will have a classroom. At present, six to eight college interns come for the summer and stay for 12 weeks, and high school kids come for two weeks to learn about the turtles and gain some hands-on experience with them.

That educational program will be significantly expanded, and Jean Beasley thinks that's one major step toward resolving some of the issues that might land a sea turtle in a hospital in the first place.

"The only way we're ever going to solve the problem is through education and understanding," she said. "There's a broader picture here and we do teach conservation. The turtles have been around for hundreds of thousands of years and they're trying to tell us something."

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