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Turtle patrols: As hatchlings emerge lower the lights

By Tim Croft
The Star

Douse the lights. 

The sea turtle season is transitioning from nesting to hatching

That is the universal message coming from local turtle patrols as the sea turtle season transitions from nesting to hatching. 

August is the month that nesting slows and hatchlings begin to emerge from nests laid earlier in the season. 

And, with nearly a thousand hatchlings already impacted by disorientation caused by beach lighting, turtle patrol leaders are urging folks to keep the beaches dark and smooth. 

“Everybody has done such a great job with Leave No Trace and this year our beaches look better than ever,” said Jessica Swindall with the Florida Coastal Conservancy, the non-profit arm of the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol. 

“But the lighting is causing problems. The season has gone okay, but we have had a lot of disorientations recently and that is a little depressing. We have serious lighting issues on the beach.” 

Nearly 1,000 hatchlings have been impacted by disorientation due to lighting

To date, the peninsula has seen 28 sea turtle nests hatch and in 10 of those, based on analysis of tracks, the hatchlings had major issues with disorientation, heading in directions other than the water. 

Each nest or egg chamber contains roughly 100 eggs. 

“That is a third of our nests so far and pushing 1,000 hatchlings that have had disorientation,” Swindall said. “That is not good.  

“And it is a problem we really haven’t had in recent years. We are trying to get the word out about the lights.” 

Swindall cited several potential components to the problem. 

First, some coastal property owners building back from Hurricane Michael have not made a priority of or simply forgotten about ensuring lighting is turtle-friendly. 

“Any place along the coast that has clear line of sight to the water needs to have a turtle-friendly bulb and fixture,” Swindall said. 

The Sea Turtle Center on 10th Street in Port St. Joe and operated by the Florida Coastal Conservancy has turtle-friendly light bulbs in stock and can direct folks on proper fixtures. 

Another component of the problem, Swindall said, is the berm at the south end of the beach restoration project completed last year. 

A number of adult female turtles established nests atop the berm and the emerging hatchlings are high enough off the beach to be disoriented by any bright lights. 

“They are very sensitive to lights,” Swindall said. 

DIsorientation from lighting has plagued early hatching nests

Lights are not the sole issue, though the most significant right now as hatchlings emerge. 

Turtle patrol leaders are also urging folks to keep the beach smooth as well as dark. 

“We are having a problem with holes also,” Swindall said. 

Despite the challenges, thus far the season’s numbers are solid. 

On the peninsula, 152 nests have been documented. 

“Nesting had kind of slowed there, but we had a new one (over the weekend) which is exciting,” Swindall said. 

Last year, the peninsula had 192 nests, the year before 132. 

A surprise has been the five green sea turtle nests that have been documented. 

Local beaches have the highest density of nesting loggerhead turtles in Northwest Florida. 

Green sea turtles are far rarer and typically on a different schedule. 

“Typically, green sea turtles nest during odd-numbered years so we are happy to welcome this new cohort of green sea turtles,” Swindall said. 

Janna Rinehart with the Indian Pass Sea Turtle Patrol said Indian Pass has documented a record seven green sea turtles this year. 

Overall, as the season transitions to hatchlings the Pass has 53 documented nests to date. 

“Mommas are still making their way to shore to nest,” Rinehart said, adding it has thus far been a successful season. 

However, on the Pass some initial nests that have hatched have shown damage from Tropical Storms Cristobal and Hannah earlier this year.