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The Changing Carolina Coast: An Iconic Creature Faces An Uncertain Future

Jackson DeWitt
October, a loggerhead sea turtle, swimming in a tank at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitaion Center. Both of her front flippers were badly damaged in an accident.

October is clearly not happy. And when a 250-pound loggerhead isn’t happy, caretakers at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center have found that lovingly slapping her shell seems to calm her down.

“When something is upset, what is your first impulse as a human species? It’s to pat,” says Jean Beasley, the founder and executive director of the sea-turtle hospital. “So we did and it worked, the turtle calmed down. I think it has something to do with the wave cycle and the feeling of security.”

October needed plenty of security – and medical care – when she arrived in the fall of 2013. Her left-front flipper had been severed and her right-front flipper was barely hanging on. She also had propeller wounds on her shell.

October is a reminder of sea turtles' fate as a species.  Acidified oceans are getting warmer, causing dramatic weather changes and distress for sea turtles across the globe.

Turtles, of course, are hardly alone. Almost every animal, fish, crustacean – you name it – are affected somehow by climate change. And it’s showing up in North Carolina in various ways.

More sharks – even great whitesare showing up in the Pamlico Sound. Alligators are increasing in density in protected areas of North Carolina. And harp seals that live on the pack ice in the Arctic are showing up from Carova to Cape Lookout.

For October, recovery meant undergoing surgery and spending time in a large, blue plastic pool about the size of a Mini Cooper.

She’s done very well, but during today’s exam, Craig Harms - an aquatics veterinarian at NC State’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology - is concerned that the propeller wounds have left some rough edges on her carapace.

He’s on the fence about whether October is ready to be released.

“The debate is whether we want to do some trimming around there to make it less of an entanglement hazard,” he says. “If we do that, she won’t be ready to go until fall. I’m always conflicted about this because I hate to take away any of their protection unless it’s really a severe hazard. So, we’re going to debate that for a little bit.”

sea turtle
Credit Dave DeWitt
A sea turtle undergoes an exam at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City.

Climate change and the unpredictable weather events it creates have led to more cold-stun events in the northeast, and the growth of a tumor-causing virus called Fibropapillomatosis, or FP.

Previously, FP only afflicted turtles in warmer waters, but recently, turtles are showing up here in North Carolina with it.

“It’s likely associated with warmer temperatures,” says Harms. “And so whether this little blip that we’ve been seeing in the last couple of years is related to that or not, it is something, that going forward over the next few decades, if oceans warm, it is going to be a more permissive climate for the virus.”

And while the spread of the FP virus is connected to its ocean environment, it’s what we are doing to the land - as a response to rising sea levels - that may pose an even greater threat to turtles.

Beach nourishment projects are growing in scope and size along the North Carolina coast. Some say rebuilding beaches will actually help turtles, giving the creatures somewhere to nest. But Harms says turtles need very specific sand conditions to lay eggs.

“It has to be good quality beaches,” he says. “It can’t be rocky. It can’t be shelly. It can’t be black-silty or they either can’t dig the nests or the temperatures will change or the silt will actually suffocate the eggs if they are laid there.”

Needless to say, the rebuilt beach can’t have basketball-sized rocks. That’s what happened during a current project a few miles away in North Topsail Beach.

Town leaders there had to request an extension to remove the rocks – one that was granted by state and federal authorities. That means bulldozers and road graders are staying on the beach during nesting season.

Beach nourishment proponents say every effort is being made to protect the turtles.

“Particular turtle nests that are in harm’s way will be relocated and monitored,” says North Topsail Beach Mayor Dan Tuman. “(Caring for sea turtles) is almost like another religion. People take it very, very seriously.”

Regulations designed to protect sea turtles are also being loosened elsewhere in North Carolina.

Earlier this spring the National Park Service proposed shrinking the protective buffers that must be maintained between turtle nests and vehicles on the beach at Cape Hatteras.* That rule change came after North Carolina congressional leaders pushed the federal government to do so.

State lawmakers are also getting involved.

“We can’t just leave everything to the critters,” says Pat McElraft, a Republican member of the state House from Emerald Isle who is leading an effort to keep more areas open to beach driving on Cape Lookout. “We’ve got to enjoy the critters ourselves. It’s almost like they’re trying to take any coastal areas, especially barrier islands, and just take the people off of it.”

When she appears on the crest of the dune, the crowd gathered on the beach in Surf City breaks into cheers.

sea turtle
Credit Dave DeWitt
Craig Harms (right), a veterinarian at NC State's CMAST, helps load October into an SUV for the short drive to the beach, and her release.

October has been cleared to go home. Three volunteers and Harms, the vet, are carrying her as hundreds watch on the beach.

Jean Beasley stands in the middle of them, waving October and her handlers toward the ocean.

“Release day is about cheers and tears,” she says. “I think it’s very apparent that we get very attached to these animals as anybody would who takes care of them and knows how sick they are and how horribly injured they are when they come to us. And it takes everything that you have to give and we give it to help them recover. And so they become a part of you. And it is very hard to see them go.”

And now, when the turtles go, it’s into a much different world than they’ve ever known.

“Even the cataclysmic events that wiped out the dinosaurs and re-shaped the planet – the turtles made it through,” says Beasley. “They are very adaptive, they’re very tough animals. They can’t survive us, and that is really sad.”

When October’s handlers put her fully healed flippers into the Atlantic Ocean, she doesn’t hesitate. The loggerhead paddles furiously, takes a slight turn to the right, and, in a minute or so, she’s gone, heading for the open ocean.

The best guess is that October is probably around 20-to-30 years old. That gives her another 20 or 30 years of laying eggs, maybe right here on this beach.

With changes to the climate – and our efforts to save structures and our own way of life along the beach - her future on the Carolina Coast is perhaps less certain than it’s been in tens of millions of years.

*Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had shrunk the protective barriers. The supervising federal agency is the National Park Service, and the changes are still proposals.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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