BRADENTON BEACH — Officials and sea turtle advocates say more beachfront property owners are shielding their nighttime lights away from the beach — and that’s confusing fewer baby sea turtles as they head toward the Gulf.
“We have a lot our citizens and property owners who have done a lot of retrofitting and changing over of their lights,” said Holmes Beach code enforcement officer Nancy Hall. “The beach appears to be more compliant than in the past.”
When baby turtles crawl out of their nest, they instinctively follow moonlight reflecting off the water to lead them to the sea. Some unwittingly follow artificial light, which can look a lot like the moon.
If they head the wrong way, hatchlings might not have enough strength to make it to the sea. They might die from dehydration or get run over on Gulf Drive.
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Suzi Fox, director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch, said she’s recorded five cases of disoriented turtles this nesting season, which started in May and lasts through October. That’s down from about 20 a few years ago.
“If we went back to say 1996 or to the year 2000, there were so many disorientations,” she said. “Today, it’s few and far between. It’s definitely much better.”
Fox said complying with the lighting restrictions is often as simple as installing a shield that directs light away from the beach. She recently convinced one property owner to install shields on his lights.
“We’ve had three nests hatch in front of this place and they all made it to the water,” Fox said.
Fox also said fewer people are leaving litter and other items such as chairs on the beach at night. Those items can hamper an adult turtle’s journey across the beach and prevent them from laying eggs.
“This year it’s probably an 80 percent better beach with less stuff on it,” she said. “That is definitely the cities stepping up and doing their part.”
Hall photographs and tags each item that is left out at night, reminding owners to pick up their beach gear. After several days, an item is considered abandoned and is removed.
Hall said vacationers, not year-round residents, are more often responsible for the illicit beach lights. Some renters aren’t familiar with lighting restrictions and don’t close their blinds at night, potentially confusing baby turtles.
“That’s where we find a lot of our issues, renters who are not from here,” Hall said. “Sometimes they’re a little adamant about not following the rules and regulations.”
Anitra Bruce, manager of Seaside Inn and Resort in Bradenton Beach, said the resort does its part to inform guests about the lighting restrictions. A pamphlet in each room discourages guests from shining flashlights on the beach or touching the nest just outside the resort.
“We do inform the guests that it is turtle nesting season,” Bruce said. “If they are out on the beach at night, we ask that they please not disturb the nests.”
Bruce said the resort uses soft-glow lights in rooms that don’t shine beyond the outside patio.
Other beachfront businesses are changing their lighting. After meeting this spring with representatives from Bradenton Beach and Turtle Watch, the BeachHouse restaurant replaced its outside lights with about 50 new bulbs that feature three amber LEDs recessed in a swirled metal casing.
The lights appear brighter to people but shine at a frequency that doesn’t distract the turtles. At $32 apiece, the new lights weren’t cheap. But manager Michael Shannon said lower electricity use and a longer lifespan would offset that cost.
“We very much want to do whatever it takes to keep the turtle environment safe,” he said. “We have a high degree of visibility, both in the public eye, and I guess in the turtles’ eye.”