TOPSAIL BEACH — With the pageantry of a high school prom, nearly two dozen sea turtles were returned to their ocean home on Wednesday in the largest single release from the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center since it opened more than a decade ago.
The turtles --14 greens and eight loggerheads -- ranged in size from 20 to 200 pounds and represented about half the patient population at the turtle hospital. Founder Jean Beasley said she often compares the releases to parents sending their children off to college, happy that they're ready to face the world but keenly aware of the dangers it holds.
"It's a day of cheers and tears," Beasley said after the turtles had been sent swimming into the brisk, clear surf under a cloudless June sky.
Researchers say only one in 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings survive their first year of life, and one in 5,000 to 10,000 make it to maturity, which for some turtles takes 30 years.
North Carolina beaches are among sea turtles' favored nesting areas, and over the past couple of decades, a small army of volunteers has developed to act as guardians of the beloved reptiles.
Nearly 100 people volunteer with the turtle hospital, the only one of its kind in the state. About half work in the 850-square-foot facility that houses the animals in tanks while they recover from illness or injury; the other half go on turtle patrols, walking the beaches during the annual nesting season and marking nests to protect them from molestation. Volunteers work long and odd hours, searching for nesting turtles in darkness or responding to emergencies at the hospital such as failed pumps and balky water heaters.
Most of the turtles rescued in North Carolina end up at the Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, launched 12 years ago in hopes of saving a few animals a year.
It has been busier than Beasley ever expected. Over the past year, Beasley said, the center has worked with 54 turtles, so many Beasley had to convert a bedroom for interns into a temporary turtle infirmary.
In November alone, she said, the facility took in about three dozen green turtles that were stunned by a cold snap that chilled the water before they could reach the warm Gulf Stream.
Beasley used Wednesday's release as a chance to ask for help for the center, which is trying to raise $350,000 to build a new, larger hospital.
The hospital gained international attention last month when it took in a rare Kemp's Ridley turtle that had traveled far beyond its range and washed up on the coast of England in 2007. After spending two years in recovery there, it was flown to North Carolina in April and taken to Topsail Island. Named Wilhelmina, the turtle is scheduled to be released next week.
Hundreds of people lined up on the beach to watch Wednesday's release or help carry a turtle to the water.
The animals were brought from the hospital in a convoy of trucks.
Smaller green turtles rode on the laps of volunteers, wrapped in damp towels. The larger loggerheads rode in the truck beds, surrounded by volunteers who patted their shells and kept them hydrated and calm.
The turtles were then carried down a roped-off avenue toward the surf in a processional that included a child escort who carried a placard with each turtle's name. As the handlers walked along the rope lines, schoolchildren, their teachers and parents could see the patterns on the turtles' shells and watch their flippers flapping.
"Dix-on, Dix-on, Dix-on," chanted a group of kids from Dixon Elementary School in Holly Ridge as their namesake turtle was escorted to the ocean. Principal Peggy Kelley and art teacher Beth Howard carried Dixon to the water. The loggerhead was a victim of the November cold spell, found floating near the Cape Lookout Light and named for the school, which has taken a great interest in the rescue efforts.
Trey Pierce, a 10-year-old who goes to Dixon Elementary, was attending his second release.
"It's hard to get a front-row seat like this," Trey said, and see an endangered animal get another chance at survival.
As they were placed in the ocean, some of the turtles headed straight out. Others, such as a massive loggerhead named Snow, needed a bit more encouragement.
Snow was picked up in September 2007 from Snow's Cut Inlet near Carolina Beach. Rescuers first thought she was dead. The animal had a major skull fracture, which was repaired by the N.C. State University School of Veterinary Medicine.
She showed no sign of it Wednesday.
A half-dozen handlers followed her up to their necks into the water and formed a human barrier to keep her from turning back. Finally, she pointed her wizened head out to sea and paddled away.
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