Closing out the last of our three-part series on “what we do here” is the best part of our work: release day. It’s certainly a happy day for a fully recovered turtle, but a bittersweet day for our staff. Volunteers become emotionally invested in not only the work but in each patient. It can’t be helped: a sick or injured turtle arrives, sometimes on death’s door, and whatever else might have been going on in your life that day fades into the background. The staff is laser-focused as the work begins to save these magnificent creatures. So when you’ve spent months, sometimes years, tending wounds, patting flippers and looking into the eyes of these critters it’s tough to let them go. They’re certainly not returning to a world that has improved since they came through our doors.

No turtle is released until our turtle vet, Dr. Craig Harms, has given it a final, thorough physical: weighing, blood work, sometimes one last radiograph, and an overall check for any physical anomalies (lumps, bumps) or limitations (joint impingement or flipper function.) Most often it’s the bloodwork that can delay a release. Many turtles come in severely anemic, and even with nutritious meals and supplements (calcium and vitamins) their numbers don’t bounce back quickly. They look great on the outside, but Dr. Harms is a stickler about making sure they are really, really going to have the best chance of making it before he hands over their swimming papers.

Turtles nearing release also receive a visit from an N.C. Wildlife Resources biologist, generally Sarah Finn. She arrives with the tools of her trade: calipers for one last series of measurements, bar-coded PTT tags (inserted just under the skin near the shoulder, and recorded) and her magic wand (hand-held scanner) that she waves over the turtle just to make sure that the tag is working properly. Once that’s done it’s just a matter of getting a ride to the deep, blue waters, or during warmer months, to the beach. Federal regulations mandate that we return turtles to their home as soon as they are cleared by our vet. During winter months we rely on the kindness of the Coast Guard or a research vessel from one of the colleges to shepherd our kids out. But when we talk about release day, most people here associate it with the day we caravan to one of our Topsail beaches with turtles great and small.

Summer release days begin with a gathering of volunteers and invited guests who assemble in our great hall for some final words from our director, Jean Beasley. Each turtle is assigned a volunteer (sometimes as many as six for the big critters) who will carry them to the shore on the road to freedom. As our turtles arrive at the beach and crest the dune they are always greeted by a large crowd. People come from near and far to wish them bon voyage.

Each turtle is given its own slow walk to the shore, announced by Jean and identified by local school children carrying a sign with the turtle’s name. Even the noise level can’t distract the turtle as their attention is obviously totally focused on what’s now directly in front of them: home!

Smaller turtles are carried into the water, usually past the breakers where they rocket off to parts unknown. The larger turtles (usually the loggerheads) are carried near the shoreline and placed on the sand. Sometimes they take a minute for a nod to the volunteers who got them there, and sometimes they scurry off without so much as a wave of the flipper. Once they make it out over the sandbars you can see them breaking through the waves, until they finally disappear.

For that group of turtles our work is done. We fulfilled our mission, our promise to them: We rescued them, made them better and set them free. Back at the hospital, we’ll continue 24/7/365 to do the same for any and all sea turtles in need.

Beach training classes scheduled

Director of Beach Operations Terry Meyer has scheduled two training sessions for anybody interested in joining the Topsail Turtle Project. “Beach walkers” begin daily patrols of Topsail beaches May 1, the official start of nesting season, and continue through August. They also participate in the hatching process as “nest sitters.” The training sessions will be held at the Surf City Welcome Center on April 5 from 1 to 3:30 p.m. and also on April 12 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. You must be available to walk along an assigned route (about a mile) one day a week throughout nesting season. Plan on attending one of the training sessions for a great introduction into the world of sea turtles and more information about the beach program. Contact Terry at 910-470-2880 if you have a specific question or concern about the sessions.

Hospital tours resume April 1

We’re opening for public tours beginning April 1. Tour days and hours will be Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. In June we move to our five-day-a-week tour schedule. Admission is $5 adults; $4 seniors (65+) and active military with ID and $3 for children 13 and over. The hospital is located at 302 Tortuga Lane in Surf City. From N.C. 210/50 turn onto Charlie Medlin Drive (Shipwreck Point Mini Golf is your landmark) and follow it through the roundabout onto Tortuga. Our gift shop is open during tours and we have a lot of exclusive hospital clothing and plush animal merchandise, and lots of sea turtle “stuff.” Come in and meet our turtles and our staff — we all speak fluent sea turtle. And thanks to the Town of Surf City for the improvements to our road!

Dare’s Reef deployment in April

We will be hosting families whose loved ones will be joining several of our patients in the artificial reef dedicated to our beloved turtle “Dare,” a Kemp’s Ridley who died over 10 years ago and returned home in her own reef ball. Please visit the website eternalreefs.com for more information on this green burial option and Dare’s Reef.

Really?! This is spring?!

March just refuses to go out like a lamb so there’s still a possibility of seeing some cold-stunned turtles. Please be on the lookout for any turtle you see stranded on the beach or in marshy areas. It could be a victim of cold-stunning. It may look dead but don’t assume that it is just because it is not moving. Gently pick it up and relocate it to an unheated area like your garage or car. Do not try to warm it up as a quick rise in body temperature will send it into shock. It’s important that the critter not lay exposed on the beach for hours, subject to weather and predators. Call our Director of Beach Operations Terry Meyer at 910-470-2880; Hospital Director Jean Beasley at 910-470-2800; the State of NC hotline for stranded, sick and injured turtles at 252-241-7367, which picks up 24/7; or our hospital during operating hours: 910-329-0222. If you are local we will quickly send one of our volunteers to retrieve the turtle for follow-up care at the hospital.

Questions, comments, suggestions?

Please direct any questions, comments or suggestions re: this column to me at flippers@att.net.

 

Karen Sota is the volunteer media coordinator for the Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach.