Topsail Island is famous, or infamous for its long history as a favorite place for pirates to hang out. So speculating that there might be a buccaneer at the turtle hospital is not entirely crazy.

“Pirate,” a young Kemp’s Ridley was rescued by boaters on the uninhabited side of Bald Head Island and admitted on April 7 with a head wound so horrific that it made even some of our long-term volunteers step away in distress. We can only guess how it happened, but once a turtle comes in the “how” takes a back seat to “what do we do about it.”

At the hospital we could see that Pirate’s injury involved the left side of his head and that the left eye had been displaced. The wound was extensive so it was difficult to assess the extent of the injury beyond the obvious. There are just so many important things in the head and no way to even guess what was really going on.

It seems that our most difficult cases arrive on weekends and Pirate was no exception. Our regular turtle vet, Dr. Harms was not available, so Jean got in touch with Dr. Greg Lewbart at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) regarding the extensive injuries to Pirate. Arrangements were made to take the turtle to CVM for a more extensive evaluation and treatment. An ophthalmologist, Dr. Westermeyer and his staff were also put on alert to see if there might be a possibility of saving the injured eye. As always, the emergency team at CVM responded to the needs of this turtle.

Pirate was transported to Raleigh at the first opportunity, where he was put back together and returned to our hospital the same day. It was at this point that Pirate got his name: he arrived with a jaunty bandage over the left side of his head reminiscent of a pirate bandana and eye patch. As happy as we were to see Pirate the news that came with him was even better: his brain case, eye and salt gland were intact! At least we were starting his rehab from a relatively good place.

Pirate’s daily treatment was quite extensive and took a lot of time. But when we’re working on turtles the clock is the last thing we look at. What we were more interested in seeing was the progress Pirate was making, and you could see improvement on a daily basis. This turtle clearly wanted to get better – fast – and his voracious appetite was expediting his recovery. Soon his wound had closed enough to get him back into water, and not long after that to move him into Sea Turtle Bay, the last stop before release and a chance to meet his adoring public during tours.

Pirate is currently receiving some basic fluff and buff maintenance several times a week. Maybe we should order an eye patch from Amazon to complete the look for his big day.

We’re on our summer tour schedule, open daily (except Wednesdays and Sundays) from Noon – 4 p.m. for only one more week. Beginning the week of Sept. 16 we move to our fall schedule/hours of two days a week when we open only on Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 - 4 p.m. Now that the kids are back in school our lines have become a bit shorter so it’s a good time to visit. The tour takes about 30-40 minutes once inside the doors so plan your schedule accordingly.


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