We had a very interesting experience a few nights ago that we really wanted to share and felt like it would be a great learning experience for everyone…
Early Friday morning (July 5th) at about 2 am, we found turtle tracks leading to a dune. We did what we always do: immediately shut off the lights, turn off the truck, and give the turtle a few minutes to settle in. But as we cut the lights, I said to Intern Eliza, “I didn’t see the turtle. Did you?”
She agreed, but we knew she had to be up there somewhere because there was only a single set of tracks leading to the dune.
Upon investigation, it became clear that the turtle had climbed up the very tall dune and unexpectedly slid down the other side, traveling deeper into the dunes.
When we saw her, she was digging a bit, so we figured we would give her a few minutes to decide if that’s where she wanted to nest (we could always relocate if she laid her clutch there).
When we returned a few minutes later, the turtle was no longer in sight. We immediately turned on our red lights and began to follow the body marks of the turtle.
It appears that the turtle attempted to climb back up the dune in a few places before becoming scared, frustrated, and misoriented.
When we found her, she was among trees, stumps, and general hurricane debris behind the first dune.
We attempted all of the suggestions in our training: touching her flipper to get her to turn in the correct directions, using red light as a guide, using white light as a guide. No matter what we did, she kept pointing herself deeper into the dunes, toward the mainland.
At that point, we called Ranger Renee Evans, who immediately began her journey towards us to help and told us that we needed to intervene. The reason this intervention was needed is because the turtle was headed to a point in the dunes where it would be extremely difficult to help her because vegetation and trees were too thick and her safety was in question.
As you can see, the turtle was about to enter very dense vegetation that would have made it extremely difficult to get to her.
We used the turtles carapace to turn her toward the ocean. Each time we turned her, we would step back, hoping that her instincts would kick in and she would be able to find the beach on her own, and each time, she would immediately start to turn back toward the mainland.
It probably took about 20+ attempts before we were able to get this turtle heading onto the beach.
We can estimate that we spent at least an hour with the turtle in the dunes. This, combined with the time it took her to crawl up to the dune and back to the water, we estimate she spent about 3 hours on land (a process that typically takes 2 hrs at most when a successful nest is laid).
This shows how far apart her entrance into the dune (on the left) and her exit (on the right) were. They are typically only a few feet apart.
This raised a major question: Why was the turtle so determined to move away from the beach?
We can only form a hypothesis, but based on our knowledge and the conditions of that night, we definitely feel that it was light pollution causing the issue.
You see, it was very cloudy that night and the lights from Swansboro were being reflected up into the clouds, causing an outline of the dunes and island toward the mainland. Turtles use starlight and moonlight to help them find their way back to the water, and because there was no moon, we think she may have been mistaking the mainland light for the moon and the direction home.
*Both of the images above are just visual representations of what the sky glow from Swansboro looks like. These photos were taken on the beach facing the dunes and Swansboro. Keep in mind that the night of the incident, the glow was much brighter (as well as these photos don’t accurately show the intensity of the light).
Light pollution is something we can all work together to reduce. There are several steps individuals and communities can take, as sited by the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission, U.S. Department of the Interior, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- Minimize beachfront lighting by turning off, shielding, or redirecting lights away from the beach.
- Close blinds and drapes in oceanfront rooms at night to stop the light from reaching the beach.
- Do not construct any type of beach campfires.
- Never use flash photography around turtles.
- Use turtle safe lighting (red lights: the red lights give off a very narrow portion of the visible light spectrum, which is less intrusive to nesting sea turtles and hatchlings.)
*If you don’t have a red light available, you can cover your flashlight or headlamp with red tape, a red balloon, or even a red t-shirt! Anything that blocks and softens the light is extremely helpful!*
Here are the two most commonly used items the interns use: red headlamps when working with the turtles and red tape to cover the trucks headlights.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy also provides these helpful tips for individuals, towns and communities.
- Keep It Low- Low mounting height and low bulb wattage. Flood, spot, and pole lighting are highly discouraged.
- Keep It Shielded- Use full cut-off fixtures that direct the light down to the ground. Shield fixtures so you cannot see the bulb, lamp or glowing lens.
- Keep It Long- Use light with long wavelengths, such as lights that are yellow, amber, or red in color.
Here is a great visualization of the best lighting to use around homes and communities along the coast.
For more helpful types and visuals click here.
(Another great resource about light pollution in particular is Skyglow Project.)
Both disorientation and misorientation are dangerous to not only adult sea turtles, but are extremely dangerous to the hatchlings as well.
(Disorientation refers to the random movement of the turtles in no particular direction, while misorientation is the movement of the turtle towards a light source that is not the ocean.)
The female sea turtles may become misoriented (like in the example above) or may be deterred from nesting in areas with many lights, while the hatchlings will head away from the ocean by mistake (they also use the stars and moon to guide their journey and instinctively head toward the brightest areas).
As individuals, as well as together as towns and cities, we can help minimize this threat to these beautiful creatures.
Please keep this story in mind, utilize the helpful tips, and pass this information along to friends, family, and community leaders.
It truly is a life or death situation.
*Our sea turtle returned safely to the ocean. We did not take pictures of her or other documentation because we were working to ensure her safe return to the water and did not want to stress the turtle further. The pictures shown above were taken the following morning in daylight.
Also, I personally want to thank my teammate Eliza for sticking it out that night. It was a very physically and mentally grueling situation, but because of our persistence and teamwork, we were able to keep our precious turtle out of harms way!
By: Jaime Wade