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Sea Turtles Dig the Dark

By Email author - Mon, 11 Mar 2013 11:44:00 GMT
Sea Turtles Dig the Dark

Artificial lighting disorients newborn sea turtle hatchlings. A Green Sea Turtle Hatchling; Credit: © Shutterstock

In nature, I can quiet my mind, and observe the color, sounds, and rhythm of life as it naturally unfolds, bringing me closer to the divine and the cosmos. Unfortunately my fast paced life juggling career, parenting and home ownership limits my experience in nature. At the same time, my desire for awe inspiring earth connections becomes stronger.

Embracing this need, I travelled to a small village nestled between a massive rain forest and the calm temperate Caribbean Sea. Tortuguero, Costa Rica known affectionately as the Land of the Turtles inhabits key nesting grounds for four endangered species of sea turtles (Loggerhead, Leatherback, Green, and Hawksbill). In the land of the turtles there are no high rise condos, beach front properties, casinos, or chain stores - just endless charcoal sandy beaches, that embrace a night sky filled with brightly lit stars. It was the first time in my life the night sky visibly illuminated abundance, infinity and depth, and spoke to me without words.

I wondered did the darkness improve the nesting and hatching habitats for Costa Rican sea turtles. If the answer is "yes" how can densely populated beach fronts with artificial light continue to be critical habitats for sea turtles? Have we shifted our balance with the earth and interrupt the natural patterns of darkness and light?

Here in the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for the stewardship of the nation's living marine resources and their habitat. In their Recovery Plans for Endangered Species, they identified light pollution as a serious threat to sea turtles populations. Specifically, NOAA targeted highly developed and populous coastal communities that rely on artificial light as a major obstacle to sea turtle recovery efforts. Light pollution is of critical importance for the state of Florida, which hosts 90% of all sea turtle nesting in the United States.

Coastal lights not only discourage female turtle to come ashore and nest but disorient hatchlings, causing them to crawl inland, away from the ocean or wander aimlessly on the beach. Disoriented hatchlings often die from dehydration, exhaustion, terrestrial predation and even passing cars. If they make it to the ocean, they have a lower chance of survival due to energy loss, making it harder to reach important off-shore habitats and increasing their susceptibility to marine predators.

As a result, the State of Florida with assistance from by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Recovered Oil Fund for Wildlife, (Based on BP 2010 Oil Spill and Recovery) is working with local officials and property owners to darken nesting beaches with chronic lighting problems. This important project is being implemented by the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) through funding property owners for the installation of "turtle friendly" lighting. STC's primary focus in on balancing safety and visibility needs of the community with sea turtle nesting habit.

STC adheres to a simple approach, promoting the following three steps:

1. Keep it low by removing tall light fixture lamped with white light and replacing them with Amber LED Bollard Fixtures no greater than 42" in height.

 Keep it low by removing tall light fixture lamped with white light and replacing them with Amber LED Bollard Fixtures no greater than 42

2. Keep it shielded by removing tall spotlight lamped with white light with shielded downward fixtures with Red or Amber LED light. (sea turtles are not drawn to or attracted to Red or Amber light due to a longer wave length).

Keep it shielded by removing tall spotlight lamped with white light with shielded downward fixtures with Red or Amber LED light. (sea turtles are not drawn to or attracted to Red or Amber light due to a longer wave length)

3. Keep it long wavelength; Sea Turtles are HIGHLY ATTRACTED to short wavelengths of light and are less disturbed by long wavelengths of light.

Keep it long wavelength, Sea Turtles are HIGHLY ATTRACTED to short wavelengths of light and are less disturbed by long wavelengths of light

STC recognizes to mitigate the negative impacts of light pollution will require the behavior change of local government, owners, renters, tourists, and businesses. STC continues to work with private beachfront property owners to retrofit problem lights using the latest sea turtle-friendly technologies. To date, STC has worked with over 70 existing coastal properties-many with histories of sea turtle disorientation. STC goal is to extend existing stretches of dark beach to create a contiguous stretch of nesting habitat. When all projects are complete, STC will have darkened 69,000 feet of beachfront and restored over 9 miles of sea turtle nesting habitat to darkness.

sea turtle hatchlings disoriented by light on Ann Maria Island

Ann Maria Island lies on the Southwest Coast of Florida. Over a five year period, 5,000 hatchlings were disoriented and never made it to the ocean. STC worked with 7 properties, to retrofit properties. As a result, in 2011 there were no reports of sea turtle disorientation. Marine turtle permit holders authorized by the State of Florida were responsible for collecting data.

Sea turtles represent a time on earth when dinosaurs reigned over 200 million years ago. Often referred to as key indicator species their condition reflects the health of our oceans and planet. Their survival is directly tied to our existence. Sea turtles face numerous threats from pollution, loss of habitat and long haul fishing techniques but coastal light pollution is one threat easy to change. Not only does this successful project restore the balance of light and darkness to the beaches of Florida but improves the lives of these majestic creatures.

Information on the Sea Turtle Conservancy is located at: www.conserveturtles.org.

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8,850 Sea Turtle Hatchlings Rescued from Lights in South Florida

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Topics: Sea Turtles