Lights dim prospects for sea turtles

Mesmerizing: Imperiled reptiles are confused by bright beach developments that shine like the moon - and lure them away from the sea.

March 21, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOCA RATON, Fla. - The sand at sunrise tells the story: The footprints, 60 to 70 sets made by sea turtle hatchlings, are headed in the wrong direction.

Not toward a new home in the Atlantic Ocean, but in the direction of the motel and condominiums to the south that left their lights on again. Fooled by the false light, thinking they were following moonlight glinting off water, many of the turtles will die, confused, without ever escaping the coast.

"We've picked them out of storm drains," said Kirt W. Rusenko, marine conservationist at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center here. "Every year, people bring them in from the parking lots."

It is here on South Florida's beaches where sea turtles - the endangered leatherbacks and green, the threatened loggerheads - come to lay their eggs in the warm sand and here, 45 days later, their hatchlings emerge from a cocoon of darkness to scurry for the safety of the moonlit water.

But light has become the biggest predator of these reptiles along the east coast of Florida - and cities and counties are trying to cut the switch. Baby sea turtles - in search of the brightest horizon - are becoming increasingly disoriented by the over-development of what was once pristine beachfront.

Many die before they reach the ocean because they made a beeline the wrong way.

"It is just like a moth to a light bulb," said Debbie Sobel, president of the Sea Turtle Conservation League of Singer Island, an urban beach in Palm Beach County.

Palm Beach County is the No. 1 nesting beach for leatherback turtles in the United States and second only to Brevard County, home of Cape Canaveral, for loggerheads.

Twenty years ago, sea turtles were more likely victims of poachers in search of their meat or shells or eggs (a reported aphrodisiac). Now, light is causing the most damage.

The county is stepping up its enforcement of "light scofflaws," with environmental officials - essentially the light police - scouring the beach at night for stray bulbs trained on the sand, for streetlights that cast shadows, for lamps inside apartments yet visible through open windows. They send out letters warning that if the beach isn't dark after 11 p.m. from March 1 through Oct. 31, fines will be levied. They promise they will be even tougher this year than before.

Firm rules

"No artificial light shall be visible from the beach," said Carly Pfistner, a county environmental coordinator.

Some residents worry about safety, complaining that if they turn out the lights, they will be the ones who are endangered. Elderly folks have complained it's now so dark, they have trouble seeing their locks when they get to their condominiums. Others complain about having to close the blinds on their million-dollar views, just because of a few 300-pound turtles.

"It's definitely a man vs. nature thing," said Chick E. Hendrickson, general manager of the Martinique II condominiums, two beachfront towers, 26 stories high. "It's one of those things. Believe me, if you are not aware, they will make you aware."

It took about a year to get his lights directed properly, but this season, Hendrickson said, his buildings are in compliance.

Light by accident

"The only thing we cannot control is when residents do not close their blinds and turn on their lights," he said. "They do this unwittingly."

JoAnne Evans, owner of the 12-room Paradise Inn motel not far down Ocean Boulevard, had to paint the globes on a few of her outdoor lamps to keep them dark enough to keep from reflecting on the beach. She doesn't find it any trouble.

"It's no problem for me. Of course, these high-rises," she snorts, "they're another story."

The turtle species are showing mixed results. Last year, 14,187 loggerhead nests were recorded in the county, down from the year before; 1,942 green nests were found (a record high) and 160 leatherbacks (little change).

At the same time, disorientations --- times when a significant percentage of the hatchlings are detoured on the way to the water - are up. They are the highest in the state. Environmentalists blame it on coastal development - the more people, the more lights. Some parts of the county are still developing their ocean fronts. Several large condominiums are under construction in the northernmost part of Palm Beach County, filling up the last vacant lots. County code will require them to tint the windows that face the beach.

It's not just construction that adds to the trouble. Beach renourishment and dredging projects are on the rise as people try to protect their homes from being washed into the Atlantic as a result of erosion. When the beaches are extended, however, a new problem appears: Streetlights and other fixtures - once obscured by dune plants - are now right in the turtles' line of sight.

New visibility

The beach at Spanish River Park down the street from Gumbo Limbo finished one of those projects last year.

"Everything went haywire," Rusenko recalled.

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