Jean Beasley '58

Protecting fragile turtles
April 1, 2008
Jean Beasley '58

Brownie Harris

Jean Beasley remembers clearly the night she fell in ove. The moon shone over the Atlantic, and the hypnotic rhythm of the waves created a sense of reassuring calm. From the back deck of their Topsail Island, North Carolina, vacation cottage, Beasley '58 and her daughter, Karen, watched with awe as a sea turtle slowly made her way out of the ocean and onto the beach, where she carefully dug a nest in the sand and laid her eggs.

"She came right up to where Karen and I were sitting," recalls Beasley. "She was willing to accept the dangers of coming out of her habitat and determined to make the best effort she could for her eggs." As mother and daughter watched the turtle drag herself back toward the ocean, they feared that the exhausted reptile wouldn't be able to get past the rough surf without help. "But she just plowed right back through the water like it was nothing. And we both fell in love."

At the time, neither Beasley could know that what they'd witnessed would come to have a profound impact on their lives—and on those of untold numbers of sea turtles. Inspired by nature's display of fragile tenacity, they sought more information about the graceful swimmers that have lived on the planet for tens of millions of years. Before long, mother and daughter became ardent activists and well known, through word of mouth, as unofficial experts. Karen dubbed their efforts the Topsail Turtle Project.

Just a few years out of college, Karen was diagnosed with leukemia. She devoted the last years of her life to protecting sea turtle nests along Topsail's coastline. And she asked her mother to use her life-insurance payout to establish a facility for sea turtles.

The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center opened its doors in 1997 and in the last decade has treated more than 200 turtles for injuries including fractured flippers, hook and net entanglements, and viral and fungal illnesses. Hundreds of volunteers, ranging from school children to retirees, lend a hand. Every day, from May through August—turtle nesting season—volunteers survey Topsail's twenty-six miles of coastline to identify sea turtle tracks and nests.

Beasley's efforts have earned her international recognition. Last year, she was elected to the board of directors of the International Sea Turtle Society, a global organization dedicated to advancing knowledge of sea turtle biology and conservation. And she was selected from thousands of nominations to be Animal Planet's 2007 Hero of the Year for her work. The honor comes with a trip to Hawaii and a $10,000 donation to a charity of her choice. Not surprisingly, Beasley, a former teacher, earmarked the money to expand the center, and to augment the center's mission to educate the public about the plight of the sea turtle and its fight for survival.

Teaching people about the plight of sea turtles is an imperative, Beasley says. "These are ancient creatures that predate dinosaurs. They have survived all the cataclysmic events that have shaped and reshaped our planet, but they are not surviving what we as humans are doing to them.

"So when a child comes to visit, and I see her eyes light up, and her mouth goes 'Ooooh!' and she falls in love with sea turtles, I think, That child could be the one that helps save them."