It’s a trend that’s concerning state and local turtle officials – vacationers are increasingly taking the whole family out to the beach at night to check all the sea turtle nests with cell phone flashlights.
A recent viral video by the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce depicting turtle hatchlings scurrying to the Gulf of Mexico has sparked a rash of souvenir-seekers illuminating nests with cell phone flashlights, which can be deadly for turtles, Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring Director Suzi Fox said.
Lights from cell phones and other sources temporarily blind hatchlings trying to find the water, as well as mother turtles, which are still nesting for the next couple of weeks, and beachgoers, she said, adding that no one knows whether turtle vision is permanently impaired by artificial lights.
No one would intentionally shine an LED flashlight in a newborn infant’s eyes, the equivalent of a turtle hatchling, Fox said.
“Those few minutes going to the sea are precious to them,” Fox said, explaining that if they are disoriented by lights, they could crawl away from the water, where they can become dehydrated, be hit by cars or attacked by predators.
At a nest that hatched one night last week, a large family surrounded it, shining cell phone lights at the hatchlings. While the hatchlings made it to the Gulf, their temporary blindness could have caused them to lose their bearings and come back ashore later, she said.
“Did that nest get disoriented? We don’t know, it could have,” she said, adding that recent rains have obliterated hatchling tracks by the time Turtle Watch volunteers arrive at dawn to track them.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission paid a visit to the Island last week to check nests; sea turtles are protected by state and local laws. Loggerheads are threatened species, one step away from the endangered category.
A turtle-friendly flashlight is available, but it cannot be used continuously, Fox emphasized.
“You have to click it on and click it off quickly,” she said. “It can’t be a constant light because hatchlings will follow it and it will disorient mothers.”
Eight nests have disoriented so far this season on the Island. Nests are expected to continue hatching through Oct. 31, the end of the turtle season, and possibly beyond.