[MARINE_BIOLOGY_INTERNATIONAL] When it's dark enough, they can see the stars


When it's dark enough, they can see the stars

17 August 2012

BY LIZA STROUT - They say only one out of every thousand sea turtle hatchlings survives to maturity. A group of local volunteers works to give the turtles every chance possible to survive the dangerous period between a nest being laid and the hatchling reaching the surf.

Coastal Wildlife Club monitors the beaches of Gasparilla Island, Little Gasparilla Island and Manasota Key. CWC volunteers head out early each day to walk miles of local beaches, searching for signs of new sea turtle nests.

The 2012 sea turtle nesting season was shaping up to be a record breaker. As of June 22, there were more than 2,000 documented and confirmed sea turtle nests in the territory CWC covers.

That number included nine green sea turtle nests and a single Kemp's ridley sea turtle nest. While the loggerhead sea turtle is threatened, the green and Kemp's ridley are both endangered and their nests are rare on local beaches.

Then, Tropical Storm Debby churned through, soaking and washing turtle nests with a one-two punch of heavy rains and high tides.

Because of the storm, the month of July saw only a few hatchlings, rather than tens of thousands, making their way into the waters of the Gulf. Through all of this the sea turtles continued to nest, even coming ashore during the worst of Debby's impact.

Those nests, an unknown number, and the earliest of the more than 1,500 documented after the storm, are ready to erupt (hatch).

"This week could be lethal, though, for little sea turtles emerging from nests," said Wilma Katz, vice president of CWC, in an email to local media outlets. "Hatchlings are guided to the water by the lighter, open horizon of the night sky over the sea," explained Katz. "Adult females are guided back to the sea similarly after nesting. Both can be led astray by our lights."

Lights will be especially dangerous in the coming week. The new moon is on August 17, and, of course, the sky is darkest then and during the days surrounding a new moon. Even very dim lights can easily overwhelm the starlight reflected on the water, which turtles use to navigate.

According to Katz, this was not much of a problem during July, for a very depressing reason.

"In July, there were few hatchling disorientation incidents in great part because there were virtually no hatchlings to be led astray," said Katz. "Lost nests don't produce turtles."

August will be different. Help is needed from residents, visitors and beachgoers to prevent the loss of hatchlings.

What can you do to help?

"Sea turtles need dark beaches so they'll see the right light," said Katz. "Regardless of color, all lights visible from the beach should be shielded or turned off."

Also, if you dig holes in the beach, make sure to fill them before you leave so that erupting hatchlings do not get trapped. Dispose of any food remains, which attract predators.

For more information, visit coastalwildlifeclub.org and darksky.org.

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