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Save A Turtle

4 weeks ago, 07/08/2014 at 7:16pm

Turtle HatchlingsTurn Off a Light and Save a Turtle

Town Environmental Science Coordinator Keith Laakkonen is worried. Turtle season on our island officially began May 1st, so the first nests should be hatching any time now since the gestation period is normally between 55 and 65 days. The problem is - and what's got Laakkonen and his staff working after hours (note, Town employees are paid a salary so they do not receive overtime) - is that some beachfront property owners are still not either shielding their lights or switching to turtle-friendly lighting, and he fears this will result in the death of many baby turtles.

"The easiest way to kill a hatchling is to leave the lights on if you have a house on the beach,” he said. "And since sea turtles are endangered, the Town has had an ordinance in effect for nearly 20 years but people still do it.”

Baby sea turtles have an instinctive tendency to move toward the brightest thing they see. On a natural beach, this is usually the night sky over - and reflected by - the ocean, whether the moon is present or not. Once hatched from their eggs buried beneath the sand, the hatchlings wait until the temperature has cooled down enough for them to believe that night as fallen, then they emerge from the sand and - to avoid land based predators - make a beeline to wherever they perceive the water to be.

According to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC), to a hatchling on a beach, "an artificial light source appears bright because it is relatively close by, yet it is not intense enough to brighten the sky and landscape. The resulting glare makes the direction of the artificial source appear overwhelmingly bright-so much brighter than the other directions that hatchlings will ignore other visual cues and move toward the artificial light no matter where it is relative to the sea.”

The problem can be solved by simply either shielding the lights or by replacing the bright fluorescent bulbs with amber LED lights, which will still illuminate the house for safety and are also very energy efficient.

Laakkonen told us that, despite years of educational outreach by he and his staff, Turtle Time and local newspapers, the same homes continue to violate the ordinance.

"The properties I'm visiting right now are the same ones I've been going to for five or six years, and it's frustrating,” he said. "They know what the law is, they know why I'm coming. One hotel even told me that 'they were just waiting for me to show up' before they switched out their lights. Some of them don't believe me, and some of them flat out don't care.”

Keith told us that one solution he came up with this year is to send his 'repeat customers' a notice of violation (NOV) right away, which requires them to come into compliance immediately or face fines and/or legal action by the Town.

"This has worked pretty well so far,” he said. "90-95% are willing to work with me right away. The other 5% take up 95% of my time - they just want to do battle.”

Some of Laakkonen's biggest problems are caused by short-term renters.

"The property owner has the LED lights installed, but then these folks rent the house for a week on vacation and change all the bulbs out for bright lights they bought when they got here,” he said. "This is very frustrating because I know there is literature in the house explaining why turtles need to be protected. Two years ago I stood in the middle of Estero Boulevard, picking up dead hatchlings because someone left a light on. That experience was horrible for me but much worse for the turtles.”

All over the island, folks can see areas that have been posted and roped off with yellow tape and signs. These are turtle nests, and it is a federal offense to disturb them (the Marine Turtle Protection Act, violations of which can include 60 days imprisonment and/or a $500 fine). When beach goers see these signs and taped off areas, they should observe from a distance and never disturb a nest. Turtle Time, Inc. is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the continued survival of loggerhead seaturtles, and their volunteers are the ones who regularly patrol the beach along with Laakkonen to ensure their safety. More information on Turtle Time is available from their website, www.turtletime.org. Anyone who finds a disturbed nest or an injured turtle can contact them at 239-481-5566.

Keith told us that he is happy to explain all the options available to people to make their lighting turtle-friendly.

"It's about the conservation of threatened species and about sharing the beach,” he told us. "Without our beach, these turtles would be gone! This island is their nursery.”

Keri Hendry Weeg