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I am face to face with a sea-wizened mask, a 280-pound loggerhead sea turtle making burbling sounds in his tank. They call him Big Guy. His plum-size eyes, so gentle

Madison County Championship Rodeo

I am face to face with a sea-wizened mask, a 280-pound loggerhead sea turtle making burbling sounds in his tank. They call him Big Guy. His plum-size eyes, so gentle

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

I am face to face with a sea-wizened mask, a 280-pound loggerhead sea turtle making burbling sounds in his tank. They call him Big Guy. His plum-size eyes, so gentle

The Return of the Sea Turtles

I am face to face with a sea-wizened mask, a 280-pound loggerhead sea turtle making burbling sounds in his tank. They call him Big Guy. His plum-size eyes, so gentle and steady, contain shadows of the ancient. If I could stare longer, I might even say they were mystical — but he is gone too fast, submerged. A year ago, Big Guy was cold-stunned in the waters off Cape Lookout, his belly full of garbage that he’d swallowed at sea. He was nursed back to health here in Surf City, at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. The entirely volunteer-run operation is led by one tireless visionary: Jean Beasley. With intense brown eyes and a constant smile, Jean moves with the calm practicality that comes from a life spent nurturing the injured.

Jean Beasley. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Today is Release Day, the hospital’s most public, emotional, and ceremonial day: the day when 19 turtles, including loggerheads, greens, and Kemp’s ridleys — some in residence for more than a year — return to the ocean. As a songwriter, I can’t help but turn the word “release” over in my mind, thinking of the Bob Dylan song: release from the past, release from misgivings, from fear. I wonder if Big Guy senses that his release is coming, that he’s going home.

“I wanna see the turtle, Mama.” My 3-year-old daughter — also named Jean — has been talking about Big Guy for weeks, ever since we found out about the release. She says “turtle” without the R. I hold her up for a look into the big blue tank. “Big Guy was sick?” she asks.

She knows the answer. “Yes, baby,” I say.

“But now he’s going HOME!” She nods her head and raises her eyebrows as if the world makes perfect sense and she understands everything.

She’s too young to know that getting home, and staying there, is no simple task, and not even of our own devising sometimes. More than just comfort or shelter, home is where we operate best, where we resonate most truly. But what is an honest slog of trial and error for humans — to find that place of greatest thriving — is for sea turtles a game of dodgeball with man-made garbage. And yet we all press on, because once at home, we can all do what we know to do — a singer sings, a turtle swims.

This hospital is a home of sorts for 84-year-old Jean Beasley. It’s a complicated, hard-won refuge for turtles, of course, but also for the people who want to help them. Jean, a former teacher and school administrator, collects the injured, nurses them, inspires them, and sends them back to where they belong. Some of the volunteers helping at the hospital have been with her from the very beginning, since 1997, when she first established the turtle hospital in Topsail Beach. “There were turtles everywhere,” she says, “even in the bathroom.”

In the late 1970s, a chance beach encounter with a nesting sea turtle sparked the Beasley family’s interest in the creatures. A decade later, Jean’s daughter, Karen, founded the Topsail Turtle Project. After Karen was diagnosed with leukemia in her mid-20s, Jean also devoted herself to protecting sea turtles and their nests. As Karen’s health diminished, she asked her mother to use her life insurance money to continue the mission of helping sea turtles.

Canal takes a final swim in his rehabilitation tank before heading into the waves. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Somehow, this steely, bright-eyed woman with a hurricane of a heart managed to turn heartbreak — a fear that I, like any parent, dare not let cross my lips — into 14,000 square feet of healing, with a sick bay, a convalescent unit, an isolation room, and an intensive care unit. There are interns and junior interns, turtle Jacuzzis, turtle taxis, dozens of giant blue tanks, and cases of salt stacked in the back hallway. All of it is dedicated to the rehabilitation and release of sick and injured sea turtles found up and down the East Coast.

This morning, people pack the lobby shoulder to shoulder as Jean stands on a ramp above us. Soon, the turtles will be moved to the beach. Many of the volunteers will be releasing a turtle that they have cared for daily, weekly, for months on end. Slowly and with deep purpose, Jean speaks the name of each turtle and the volunteer who’s cared for it. Everyone here knows that Release Day is about more than a turtle taking a difficult step; it’s about the honor of sharing difficult steps together, and an acknowledgment of the difficult step of loving and letting go. “Each of the turtles takes a piece of me,” Jean says. “I can’t protect them anymore. They are going right back to where they got in trouble. But it is where they need to be.”

• • •

In 1974, scientists Archie Carr and Patrick Coleman published findings on how sea turtle migration is connected to the geophysics of seafloor spreading. The green sea turtles they studied migrated 1,200 miles every year, from Brazil to the remote Ascension Islands, their birthplace, to lay their eggs. Some say strange magnetic forces in the sand draw them home. Once a neighborhood trip, the turtles’ return now takes months, as they navigate 100 million years of continental drift. For Jean’s turtles, hazards like fishing nets, boat motors, or pieces of swallowed plastic prompt a detour to the hospital up in Surf City.

Their new journey begins a few miles south at Topsail Beach, with a brigade of pickup trucks carting turtles and volunteers to a designated spot on the shore. By the time they arrive, the area is already full of locals, grade school classes, and bathing-suited, sunscreened, water-bottled onlookers. Eventually, hundreds will line the beach. One year, more than 1,000 people turned out to watch. Jean waits until the last possible moment to share the release date, but, no matter what, there’s always a crowd.

“OK! We are missing some kids!” shouts an elementary school teacher crisscrossing the sand corridor, cordoned off for turtles, in search of students.

“Everybody out of the middle!” a volunteer yells. “Everybody! The people on the sides — ”

Her instructions are drowned out by sirens heralding the fire department’s arrival. Loose kids walk the sand aisle; volunteers shoo them. The National Fire Protection Association mascot, a fireman dressed as Sparky the Fire Dog, appears at the top of the dune behind us.

My Jean pulls my dress. “Where is Big Guy?”

“He’s coming, baby. Let’s go get a good seat.” Now that there’s an audience, I find myself speaking of the release in show terms. The hushed nuance of the preshow ceremony has given way to friendly spectacle. I’m determined for Jean to see that ancient reptile’s gentleness, so I weave through the bodies to get her to the front row.

“But where is Big Guy?” she sighs, looking around. “I want cheese crackers, Mama.” Jean is barefoot, knows no bedtime, and depends on me as her dispensary of all things: snacks, hats, sunscreen, soap, life.

“Move out of the way of the turtles!” someone yells.

“They’re here!” a child shouts.
Everyone turns their eyes offstage, up the beach to the dunes. We take a collective breath.

“They are going back to where they got in trouble. But it is where they need to be.”

Within that quiet, I think about how similar to one of these turtles I once was: Six months pregnant, I boxed up my New York City life and returned home to Raleigh. Small spaces, high prices, falling music revenues — the city didn’t make as much sense as I desperately wanted it to. I had no idea how I would go on tour once the baby came. I had spent every waking breath building a life in which I was a songwriter and musician first; I could not fathom who or what I would be on the other side of this new journey. I only knew to follow the magnetic heartbeat in the sand — lumbering home to shore with my egg.

Seagulls throw shadows; the ocean breaks in regular rhythm. Jean Beasley leads a procession to the water and then perches on a stool, right on the precarious spot where sand and water meet.

Children march seaward with large cardboard placards introducing each turtle. Volunteer partners follow, one by one, ushering the turtles down the sandy aisle. The turtles light up, feeling the water. Flippers reach and find speed. Then, the relief of salt water, and they are suddenly weightless. The volunteers wade in, too, and wave, tears wetting their cheeks as the animals they’ve cared for disappear into the silence underwater.

The crowd — the audience — claps and cheers and jostles to see. Two drones fly overhead. Three evening news anchors narrate into microphones with their pants rolled up. Someone is playing a ukulele. Photographers with huge, gaping lenses stalk each trudging turtle. A dozen or so people take turtle-backed selfies.

My feet sink into wet sand. All around, there’s so much joy and hope. Still, I wish for the turtles the privilege of quiet; it’s comforting to know that they have a shell. My Jean is swept up in all the pageantry, but then tires of it quickly. In the chaos, I can’t tell what, exactly, is center stage. I look to Jean Beasley, a patient mother of all things. Water is nearly lapping her stool, but she doesn’t notice. She watches each turtle as though no one else is around. Someday, I’ll explain to my Jean that meaning doesn’t require a spotlight, that the most important things that have ever happened to me were not the public ones, but the tiny moments that no one saw at all.

• • •

To ferry large turtles — like Big Guy — from the street, over the dunes, and onto the beach, turtle hospital volunteers use an inventive solution: the turtle taxi. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

Big Guy is the headliner, the grand finale. On hot sand, offstage, he waits, calm at first, and then restless. His caretaker scratches his shell and neck, talks to him, shields him from the mounting sun. She is cooing, quietly singing. I strain my ears to listen. I close my eyes to hear.

The physical feat of heaving Big Guy’s nearly 300 pounds down the sand to the water requires a turtle taxi — a vehicle that Jean and her team devised using the chassis of a surfboard cart — and the sweat and strength of four people, shouting, counting, and lifting together. At the edge of the noise and fanfare, at the moment of his release, Big Guy seems to pause. Before him is the sea. Behind him is the woman who whispered in his ear and saved his life. Beneath him is the sand he has not felt in more than a year.

A wave rushes to him, and, in only a few lurching movements, he disappears behind a curtain of water, his life no longer visible to us. Now, his real work begins.

Jean Beasley, shaded by the brim of a baseball cap, intently surveys the waves. She has studied the currents and the water temperature to ensure ideal conditions for the turtles. The words she spoke to us a few hours ago take on a kind of immediacy now: We have done what we can, even if they don’t make it much past the first wave. They are real sea turtles again, back home. When you need to send us more, we are ready. I pull these words close and tuck them in my pocket to unfold later.

My Jean is pulling on my dress again. “I’m hungry,” she pleads. Her cheeks are flushed. For her, the show is over.

I wipe sand from her face, offer her a drink of water. I think of the young woman singing to Big Guy. Her tan hands, her face pressed to his shell, her quiet caretaking — the truly beautiful sound of her tenderness. A sound worth marking, worth witnessing, worth repeating, again and again.

That spare sound, the sound of loving — if I could write that song …

But that song is Jean Beasley.

“Mama, I want to go home,” my Jean says. I rub my cheek in her hair as if it were deep as the ocean.


Want to know how you can be more like Jean Beasley? We asked her and three other expert protectors to tell us what makes sea turtles so special, and to share their best advice for keeping them safe. Plus, find out how to spot North Carolina’s sea turtles in the wild.

Read this month’s Our State Knows Best.

This story was published on May 21, 2020

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Tift Merritt

Tift Merritt is a Grammy Award-nominated singer-songwriter and a contributor to Oxford American. She lives in Raleigh.