NATURAL SOUTH: Sea turtles
Learn about the different odds the sea turtle is up against for survival and how beach communities try to help. (Courtesy: The Southern Company)
Thomas: The odds are not very good for them. You know, again, we’re dealing with a threatened and endangered species. So, their numbers are already depleted to the point that every individual actually counts.
Mike: When a loggerhead lays a nest, they’ll nest about once every two weeks for the whole summer. So, they’ll lay as many as five or six nests in a season. And within each one of those nests, there’ll be between 100 and 120 eggs is about the average per nest. Out of that nest, about 60 to 80 percent of the hatchlings will hatch out of that nest. And usually about maybe 40 or 50 percent of those hatchlings will actually make it out of the nest to crawl down to the beach and get into the water.
Thomas: A turtle comes out onto the beach and lighting is probably one of the important things, because they have demonstrated in areas where beaches are lit that it can deter the females from nesting.
Mike: When a turtle emerges from the water to nest at nighttime, you can still see the white sand at the beach, and as a result, it contrasts to the dark, dark wood lines. So, they’re using light and dark cues when they come up to find a nesting site. And when you have a hotel or a streetlight or something with a bright, bright light, that kind of drowns out those cues that the turtle’s trying to use and disorients the turtle and ultimately causes her to turn around and go back into the water. I don't really think it scares them away as much as it just confuses them when they see the lights.
Thomas: When they come onshore it’s very labor intensive. They spend a lot of time, sometimes an hour or two, actually getting ashore, selecting a site, laying the eggs, and then going back to the ocean.
Lorna: It’s not just the labor-intensive trip ashore or the bright lights of development that disturb nesting mothers. Curious beachcombers with flashlights have stopped sea turtles from their mission as well.
Mike: Light also disorients baby turtles if it’s not a natural light, because when they hatch out of the nest, which is up in the dunes right in close proximity to the wood line, they use the slope of the beach as well as the light white foam from the waves when they crash up onto the beach. You can still see that at night, even when it’s pitch black, and they use that light to cue into the ocean and where to go.
Thomas: From hatchling to adults, they’re phototaxic, they’re gonna see that bright horizon and they’re gonna head towards it. There’s gonna be a mass scramble to the ocean where once again, then they’re really more in their environment. They’re adapted to be swimming creatures, not crawling creatures.
Man 3: As soon as they get into the water, just as soon as it’s deep enough where they’re — they then cue in on waves and they’ll orient into the waves and the waves are always coming on shore. But, if it’s a rough surf and the wave — say they get into the water and the wave brings them back up onto the beach, you can watch them, they’ll turn right around and crawl right back towards that brightest horizon. So, if we’re not there, it’s — they’re gone, they go the wrong way and then they get run over by cars, picked off by raccoons, a whole slew of things happen to them.
Thomas: Here in the panhandle, no sea turtle lighting ordinances were in effect. Franklin County passed the first sea turtle lighting ordinance and basically that is to try to be in compliant with sea turtle friendly lighting along the beach, so that sea turtles will find a friendly lighting environment when they come to shore to nest and the hatchlings will be able to find their way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Lorna: Sometimes people are a little bit resistant at first because they think we want them to turn out their lights. And then it’s pretty amazing when they learn what options are available and what really it means to them and the turtles. They become part of the team. We’ve had a grant program for the last couple of years and we’ve worked with individual groups along the beaches of the Florida panhandle, all 200 miles, and have actually provided grant money to help property owners convert their lighting to sea turtle friendly. Unfortunately, we can't manage turtles. We can't tell them what to do. They’re gonna nest where they want to. We do see that it does work. We’ve had areas that are very well-developed beaches, very brightly lit and we’ve had a lot of success in getting a reduction in the lighting where we’ve seen sea turtle nesting increase, as well as the commercial enterprises being able to survive.