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Sea Turtle Hospital

The Story Behind a Sea Turtle Hospital in Surf City

Our story begins with a young girl discovering a sea turtle on a Topsail Island beach late one summer night. The girl watched as the nesting mother lumbered up the beach out of the ocean, pulling herself forward through the sand with her flippers, and leaving the distinct zigzag trail. After the turtle dug a hole and laid her eggs in the sand, she disappeared back into the ocean, leaving the little girl to stand watch over the nest all through the night. That little girl was Karen Beasley, and this event sparked her passion for protecting sea turtles, a passion that also created a sea turtle hospital in Surf City.


The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center

Karen Beasley started the first sea turtle patrols with her family along the Topsail Island shoreline. However, all too soon her life was tragically cut short by leukemia at age 29. As Karen passed away, she asked her mother to continue her mission in her stead.


Six years later, the first sea turtle hospital was built in Topsail Beach on Topsail Island. After a few years, however, the hospital had outgrown the original facility, and the new Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center was built in Surf City. Ever since volunteers have been providing top-quality care for their endangered patients.


If you're up on the beach in the early morning, you might see the turtle volunteers. The turtle patrol covers all 26 miles of coastline on Topsail Island, rain or shine, checking for signs of mama sea turtles and marking nesting sites. If you see long, curving tracks on the beach, odds are you'll find a nest at the end of it! Last year, 53 nests were found on Topsail Island alone.


Baby Turtles Migrate to the Ocean

About a month and a half after the eggs are laid, the baby turtles hatch. Since one of the first dangers baby sea turtles face are predators like foxes and ghost crabs, ramps are constructed in the sand to help the hatchlings get to the ocean. Night joggers, visitors, and even friends of the turtles stop to watch this natural marvel of the dozens of tiny turtles migrate their way across the sand to the ocean.


Baby sea turtles aren't the only ones in danger. Occasionally, people will find an adult sea turtle stunned by the cold or hurt in a boating accident. Volunteers from the hospital are dispatched to help transport the injured turtle to the hospital, where it is put in the ICU as experts diagnose and care for the patient.


Location of the Sea Turtle Hospital

You'll find the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center located in Surf City on Tortuga Lane just before the swing bridge that crosses to Topsail Island.


Tortuga Lane

Surf City, NC 28445



The rescue and rehab center has room to care for dozens of turtles and includes an ICU, a large rehabilitation center, and a gift shop for visitors and vacationers. The hospital offers tours on Thursdays and Saturdays from noon to 4:00 pm.


Tour the Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center

It’s best to come to the tour early, as arriving late means you will wait in a line that often stretches halfway around the hospital. The tour itself costs about $5, although they offer discounts for children and active military. Along the way, you'll learn more about the dangers facing local sea turtles that nest on the island, and what you can do to help get them off the endangered list. Sometimes you'll see Jean Beasley, Karen's mother and the Executive Director of the hospital, educating the volunteers and teaching visitors and vacationers about the importance of conservation.


When you reach the ICU, you can peer in at the turtles undergoing treatment. Each turtle must spend a period of their recovery in this room, lazily swimming around in their blue tanks. Most of the patients are Loggerheads, the most common species found in North Carolina waters, though you’ll find the occasional green turtle, leatherback, or Kemps Ridley being cared for, too. Occasionally, an adult turtle will come in, covered in barnacles and barely clinging to life. This is when the doctors spring into action, moving the new patient to the operating table, attaching the IV, and running the turtle through a full diagnostic.


Along the tour, you’ll move to the rehabilitation center, a large open room filled with tanks of active turtles. Volunteers are stationed along the way to introduce visitors to each turtle and tell their stories. These turtles are very active, swimming laps in their tanks and watching visitors as they come up for air with blinking eyes. One of the turtles, a Kemps Ridley named Lennie, has been a resident for over nine years. Lennie was originally admitted for blunt trauma to the head but soon they discovered after he refused food for several days that he was blind. Since then, Lennie has been a permanent resident and has become the turtle mascot for the hospital.


At the end of the tour, you’ll find the gift shop, where young turtle-enthusiasts will find themselves delighted by brightly colored t-shirts and a plush Lennie the Turtle wearing a pirate hat. For the adults, there is finer merchandise available at the gift shop, like shark’s teeth jewelry and glass sculptures made by local artists. Lodged in a corner, next to a shelf of used books, is the turtle adoption table. Here, you can adopt a turtle-like Lennie and contribute to the mission Karen Beasley began all those years ago, protecting these peaceful creatures for future generations.