Kathy Zagzebski

Kathy Zagzebski, Executive Director, Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island was our guest speaker Tuesday morning. Kathy was just named executive director in February. Before coming to Topsail she was the Director of the National Marine Life Center, a marine animal hospital and science and education center in Bourne, Massachusetts. Kathy has volunteered for a variety of marine animal projects and organizations in Massachusetts, California, Georgia, Hawaii, and North Carolina. She graduated magna cum laude from Augustana College and received her master’s degree in coastal environmental management from Duke University. Kathy is a member of the Society of Marine Mammalogy and the International Sea Turtle Society. 

Kathy noted that in an average year the turtle hospital can have 100 patients. Currently there are 18 patients in the hospital. Most are Loggerhead turtles, a common species that nests on Topsail Island, some are Green turtles another nesting species here. Occasionally, patients such as Kemp’s Ridley, Leatherback, and Hawksbill arrive from other states to be treated at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. Once a turtle recovers, it is released on the beach to go back to sea. This year, five loggerheads from Massachusetts recovered at the hospital and were released here on Topsail.

By the way, the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is open to the public now with online reservations. Over 60,000 visitors take the tour every year including this writer who visited with his wife and grandkids before COVID. The Center is an amazing place with both full-time staff and an lots of volunteers. Jean Beasley, the founder of the hospital named in honor of her daughter Karen, has a dynamic personality and love of everything sea turtle so much so that her program has garnered national attention. As she moves into retirement her enthusiasm will be missed. Kathy has large shoes to fill, but her natural enthusiasm like Jean’s will no doubt keep this great turtle conservation program going.

The other component of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island is the Topsail Turtle Project – Nesting Program for conservation of sea turtle breeding grounds on the island. In a given year there are likely to be 100 nests in the beach dunes.

This year so far 41 nests have been laid and found. Since sea turtles come ashore after dark to nest, volunteers must walk every 26 miles of Topsail Island each morning to look for new nests. Nests are located by the tracks that the mommy turtle left in the beach coming and going from the dune where she laid her 80 -120 eggs. Each new nest is evaluated, marked, and mapped by the trained volunteers. If the nest is too close to the tide line or a human dune crossing point, the eggs are excavated and moved to a safer location nearby where they may hatch in 45 to 60 days. Kathy noted that only 1 in 10,000 hatchlings survive to adulthood so every conserved nest is important for these endangered sea turtle species.

Help turtles find their nesting site: Fill in your sand holes when you leave the beach!

The Topsail Turtle Project through it’s staff and volunteers has a strong educational component to promote conservation of sea turtles. Teaching points include a) a warning about the danger of leaving behind your sand holes in the beach where turtles can become trapped, b) leaving your ocean-facing lights off as a light source can disorient a nesting turtle who then leaves the beach without nesting, c) reduce, reuse, then recycle your plastics so that turtles at sea don’t become entangled and die or need hospital care, and so that ‘microplastics’ don’t end up ingested in a sea turtle’s digestive system as is the case with some patients at the hospital.

How you can help

As a volunteer and/or as a donor, the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization. To donate or volunteer, please follow this link to their website