It’s Sea Turtle Time on Topsail Island

by Donna Byrd

Several years ago I was able to move to the Topsail Island area and I felt like I was the luckiest person alive! I was living at a place I had wanted to live my whole life…the beach! At the time, I didn’t realize how important sea turtles were to our area.

I remember driving over the high rise bridge and upon reaching its pinnacle, looking out over the vast domain of water and sky, thinking to myself, “Welcome home to the most beautiful place on earth.” To my right and left the ICW was a blue ribbon unfurling its way through sea marsh and ahead of me was the merging of the sky’s blue horizon and the infinite sea. Nature’s beauty laid before me a majestic seascape painted by God himself.  I rolled my windows down and paused, taking in the view, hardly believing that this piece of heaven was my home! Laughter bubbled up from my soul as I drove the car down the bridge and came onto Topsail Island, and that’s when I saw the sign, “Turtle Sanctuary.” I shook my head and laughed again! How many people get to live in a turtle sanctuary?

I was a young mother during the late ’80’s and early 90’s. My kids were fascinated with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They had swords that lit up and plastic turtle shells to wear on their backs. They took on the names of Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, and Donatello. They shouted out “Turtle Power!” to one another and went out into the neighborhood to rescue the underdogs. I saw the sign and said to myself, “Just wait until I tell my boys I live in a turtle sanctuary. They’re going to love it! I shouted out “Turtle Power!” to anyone within listening range and felt my joy meter rise a few notches. I lived in a turtle sanctuary!

I didn’t have to live here long to realize that our island took its sea turtles very seriously. I remember seeing bright, orange taped off areas near the sand dunes up and down the beach and wondered what they were.  I was told they were sea turtle nests and to leave them alone. It is important for each baby sea turtle to hatch and make its way to the ocean so that it can have a chance to grow up and repeat the cycle again. Sea turtles are vulnerable creatures and in danger of extinction. Topsail Island is doing its very best to make an environment where they will have the best possible chance to survive.

We began meeting turtle enthusiasts. Pam Dabney, a Treasure Realty real estate broker, and her husband, John, were volunteers with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. You see, our real estate agents are people just like many of you: outside of their wonderful jobs, they have hobbies, passions and interests that keep them busy and happy.  I asked Pam what one had to do to become a volunteer for the commission.

“Oh, it’s not hard to do,” Pam said, “but it is a commitment that has to be carried out throughout the entire nesting season and until all the eggs in the nests have hatched.” To volunteer, one has to attend a training session and spend a bit of time learning about the nests with a coordinator. Once the volunteer has been sufficiently trained, he or she is assigned to an area with a coordinator. Their job is to scout out and mark the new nests that have been made during the nesting season and do what they can to protect them.

Daily,  many volunteers take turns trolling every inch of the twenty six miles of Topsail Island. They make sure that the nests are protected from harm.  When it’s time for the eggs to hatch, the volunteers sweep the beach area in front of the nest to ensure that the baby turtle hatchlings make their trek to the sea unobscured by footprints and tire tracks. Then they wait for the miracle of the hatching of the eggs to begin.

My husband, Bill was able to observe a nest of eggs hatch one night a few summers ago. It was late August and he, Richard Baker, (the founder, president and owner of Treasure Realty) and John Dabney,  were staking out a nest on North Topsail Beach. John had been observing this nest for two months and he knew that it was time for the baby sea turtles to hatch.  Bill watched as John swept a smooth trail towards the water. It was around midnight and the men had already been there for hours,  sitting quietly in the dark, eyeing the nest.  Bill whispered that he was going to run back home and bring them back some drinks. He dashed back to the house, hoping not to miss a thing that was going on on the beach. “Donna, I know it’s late, but all the signs are pointing to the nest hatching tonight. We’re staying up to see what happens! See ya!”

Bill made his way back down to the beach, his inferred flashlight seeking out where John and Richard had been watching the nest. (Regular flashlights bother the turtles and only special infrared lights can be used while observing the turtles at night.) He saw the guys sitting in their places but they gave him the news: “Man, you just missed it! It boiled over! The baby turtles came up out of the nest and made their way to the water. Man, you just missed it!”

Bill was heartbroken. He felt as if he had missed the opportunity of a lifetime! He walked up to the nest and peered inside. Lo and behold, there was one tiny little sea turtle left. The poor baby hadn’t been able to make it up out of the nest. All his siblings were already tot he water and their journeys had begun.  Bill looked at John for some kind of direction or permission.  John nodded to Bill to pick it up and carry it to the water.

Ever so carefully, he scooped up the hatchling sea turtle.  It was smaller than the inside of his palm. He slowly walked toward the water and upon arriving at the water’s edge, placed the little turtle in the shallow water. The little guy started swimming out, away from the shore.

Bill couldn’t believe he had missed the main event, but that fate had left one small, tiny sea turtle to take “by hand” to the ocean. He felt as if he had walked into a magic moment; that for just a brief minute, he had been a part of an ancient, prehistoric circle of life. That short little moment will be forever etched in his memory.

Pam tells the story of the time when her son was a little boy and she and her husband John had taken him to watch a nest that was about to hatch. She said that several volunteers, coordinators and some students from two university classes were all there, waiting for the happy event to take place. There, under the canopy of millions of stars, they watched the miracle of the nest boiling over, little sea turtles coming out of the ground heading straight for the ocean. Little John Ray had a thousand questions and it was hard to keep him quiet.

Just a month or so ago, Pam said that she was in the office of Surf City’s Treasure Realty, and overheard a lady telling a story about watching a sea turtle nest hatch years ago. She said she had been with a class from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Pam came out and said to her, “This story sounds so familiar. Do you remember a little boy who was there? He was very chatty?”  The lady said, “Yes. I remember him. That night is something I’ll never forget. It was amazing.”

I spoke with Tom Crawford about becoming a permitted volunteer for the Wildlife Resources Commission and Sea Turtle Hospital. Tom doesn’t mind talking “turtle talk” if you’re interested.  You may email him at or you  may contact the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center at:  Participating in these programs will give you a front row seat to one of the earth’s most fascinating event as it unfolds before your very eyes.

Oh, yeah, and by the way…Turtle Power! (I just like saying that!)


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