SURF CITY | Will the wait times be as long?
How many tourists will be able to take the tour any given day?
Thursdays were the most popular days at the old building. Which day will it be now?
These are some of the questions Jean Beasley cannot answer at this moment as she sits behind the wheel of her white pickup truck outside the new Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Tuesday morning.
“Everything is a learning curve right now,” she said. “We do not know exactly what is going to happen here.”
Wrapping up the third in a four-day series of releasing rehabilitated sea turtles off the Surf City shore into the Atlantic, Beasley said she’s excited to open the hospital’s doors to the public beginning Thursday.
After Wednesday’s release close to 40 sea turtles will have been returned to sea.
Tourists and locals need not worry if they’re planning to visit the new hospital on the mainland side of Surf City soon. There are more than 30 turtles continuing to receive care there.
The mission of the hospital hasn’t changed. Rescuing, rehabilitating and returning sea turtles to their natural habitat is first and foremost. Beasley has made sure to keep the staff and volunteers grounded in that fact since opening the hospital on Topsail Island in 1997.
That mission has led to an evolution of sorts, one where the demand for space to help flippered patients and accommodate curious visitors lining up to see them quickly outgrew the 900-square-foot building that once housed the hospital in Topsail Beach.
The new facility, a sprawling building of more than 13,000 square feet at the end of a gravel road less than a mile from Surf City’s swing bridge, accommodates more patients and people.
Beasley doesn’t care to take a guess of the number of tourists and locals who may visit the center this summer.
“I have no idea,” she said, flashing her trademark smile.
In April, the hospital hosted a birthday party for one of the turtles. About 1,200 people showed up to that event.
An estimated 200 people gathered Tuesday morning on the beach to watch volunteers and staff tote rehabilitated turtles from trucks to the ocean. Allan Libby, Surf City’s tourism director, said hundreds more gathered to see the releases on Sunday and Monday.
The hospital has been a welcomed attraction to Surf City, whose leaders expect local businesses to reap economic benefits from tourists visiting the facility.
So far, Beasley said, people have not seemed to mind the hospital charging admission fees, a first for the facility. Instead of just accepting donations, the new facility is charging $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and active-duty military and $3 for children.
Admission fees validate the interest of people in the hospital’s mission, Beasley said. They’ll help with the cost of operations, much of which is done by unpaid interns and volunteers.
These are the same people who eagerly educate the hundreds of tourists who flock to see the turtles each summer.
Beasley has not determined how long the new facility will remain open for tours. Tours are from noon until 4 p.m. daily except Wednesdays and Sundays. The facility will be closed to the public July 4.
“Anybody who is there within our hours is going to get in,” Beasley said.
She has this advice: Pack sunscreen in case you have to wait outside the building; water will be sold at the facility, but you’re welcome to bring your own; bring toys to keep the little ones entertained in the event of a long wait.
In the past, Mondays typically have been less busy touring days. Locals who wish to avoid longer wait times may want to go on a Saturday since Saturdays are when tourists check in or out of their vacation rentals.
Anyone planning to visit is also encouraged to check the center’s Facebook page before heading over for a tour. The admission of a new patient could close normal touring hours.
“We have certain things planned, then all of a sudden something comes up and everything stops,” Beasley said. “We always have to remind ourselves we’re dealing with nationally protected turtles. Their care comes first.”