HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) – In theory, Huntington Beach State Park is the perfect spot for sea turtle hatchlings. Its coastline is protected from development, so dunes provide soft sands for nesting females to dig through. There’s less foot traffic to disturb the creatures. A lack of condos keeps the shoreline dark.
But farther up the horizon, the beach shines, and hatchling tracks are bending north, mistaking the skyline for the Moon.
“Basically, Myrtle Beach is a lost cause because of the high rises and everything,” said Jeff McClary, the co-founder of South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (S.C.U.T.E.).
Darkness is essential for sea turtle hatchlings, who use the reflection of the moon on the ocean to help them swim toward the sea. But heightened coastal development means more light, confusing more turtles, and likely leading to more deaths.
In Florida, whole teams are being dedicated to rescuing hatchlings disorientated by lights on the shore.
“Thank God we don’t have the lighting problem they have down there, but I do see it becoming a problem,” McClary said. “But you have to work with it, and work through it.”
Distracted by light
Sea turtles already face frightening odds, with only one in 1,000 – or as few as one in 10,000 – surviving to adulthood, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. All six sea turtle species found in the United States are considered endangered.
The hatchlings face a number of natural threats, including predators.
That struggle begins before the eggs are laid. Nesting females are notoriously picky for where they’ll dig a nest. It needs to be quiet. The beach needs to have just the right type of slope. The sand needs to be the right consistency, and the light needs to be low.
“At the beginning of nesting season, when females are coming ashore, artificial light can distract them, as well, and even prevent them from nesting,” said Melissa Ranly, the manager of the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium.
Lights from buildings or flashlights can send a female back into the water in what’s referred to as a “false crawl.” The females only have a limited amount of tries before they’ll give up and either dump the eggs in the ocean, or bury them too close to the water.
Once a nest is made, hatchlings will begin emerging 60 to 70 days later. The turtles will wait until enough have left their shells and create a “frenzy” before leaving the nest to begin the furious scuttle to the ocean and a 60-mile swim to safer waters.
They use the reflection of the moon on the water to find their way to the sea. While that instinctual reaction is helpful, artificial light can easily confuse the hatchlings.
In some spots, flipper tracks go in circles as hatchlings try to find the right way.
“That happens pretty frequently when the sky lights or glows, and sometimes that will last until morning,” Ranly said.
At sunrise, the turtles can become dehydrated and are more at risk of being killed by a predator.
That confused wandering also uses up a baby turtle’s energy, further lowering its chances of surviving even if it makes it to the ocean.
The full impact of the growing problem isn’t fully known. False crawl data can be misleading, partially because it doesn’t include how many turtles saw a beach, were turned off by the light and never came ashore, according to a technical report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
If a human can see the light from the beach, the report reads, then it’s bright enough to become an issue for a hatchling.
Studies cited in the report note that there was a “dramatic reduction” in nesting attempts by loggerheads at a brightly lit beach. Elsewhere, few turtles are emerging near lit piers and beaches with roads close by.
Nesting turtles have been hit and killed by cars after following light onto busy streets. When it comes to the hatchlings, “only the most conscious cases are observed and reported,” like when the turtles are found crushed on roads, found on sports fields or burned to death in fires.
“More often than not, lost hatchlings are preyed upon by beach crabs or shorebirds or become exhausted and dehydrated deep in dune vegetation,” the report reads.
On one North Carolina beach, ghost crabs killed more than one-quarter of hatchlings. On another, almost all were eaten.
The Grand Strand’s beaches have poor light pollution ratings, according to Clear Sky Charts, with areas ranging from dull to completely gray skies.
Additionally, there are no locations in South Carolina participating in the International Dark Sky Places program, according to the organization.
Nests on brighter beaches are transferred to safer locations, such as Myrtle Beach State Park.
The beaches vary in sea turtle friendliness. Surfside Beach, with its shoreline of homes and midrise condos on dune fields, is rated as “not a suitable environment for nesting and incubation,” according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources sea turtle conservation program beach profile.
In Myrtle Beach, high-rise condos and the dune field leaves sparse room for nesting.
“Hatchlings are known to be disoriented in this area due to the beachfront lighting,” SCDNR’s profile reads.
S.C.U.T.E. volunteers patrol about 60 miles of Horry and Georgetown county beaches daily from May 1 to Oct. 31, searching for nests. They’ll document disorientation when they see wandering flipper tracks, and will work to determine the cause.
McClary said one nest worth of hatchlings was found in a swimming pool after the turtles followed the reflection of a light on the water. Even in the darker skies of Georgetown County, tracks are bending north, toward the bright Myrtle Beach shoreline.
It’s something that’s worsened slightly since McClary co-founded S.C.U.T.E with the late Chris Marlow in 1989. However, he said it’s not as bad as it could be.
“It is not as pervasive as you would think it would be with the influx of people,” he said.
Light pollution varies on whether locals or tourists are in an area’s beachfront condos. Briarcliffe Acres in Horry County, for example, is relatively dark.
Georgetown County, which has an ordinance limiting beachfront lighting, is also darker.
“In Pawleys, we really don’t have that big of a problem with individual homes on the beach with lights, because once people are made aware, they’ll bend over backwards to try and limit the amount of light,” McClary said. “But the problem is when you have a turnover of thousands of people every week. It is a continuous educational thing.”
The organization partners with Santee Cooper to help with bumper stickers and brochures to raise awareness.
Beachfront lighting is an issue common along the South’s coastal cities.
“I’ve got friends that do sea turtles in Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach, and it’s like the wild west down there,” McClary said. “They have turtles down there disoriented all the time.”
The problem, he said, is that a group or government can’t order a high-rise building to turn all its lights off.
And even protected dark spaces can see impacts.
Hatchlings are seeing issues even on an uninhabited island near a port major city in Costa Rica, according to Eric Rosch, a senior lecturer at the Coastal Carolina University Department of Marine Science.
“We do see tracks of turtles that get disoriented, even there, and there’s not a lot of development, just that port to the south,” said Rosch, who researches beach ecosystems.
As a masters student in Florida, he volunteered for a sea turtle project by taking a four wheeler onto the beaches early in the morning in a search for nests. The found eggs were then relocated to a hatchery.
On the sand, he said even a lone car parked with its lights on can be confusing for a hatchling.
“We have seen some of the tracks run in circles, just doing loops,” he said. “Even near a place that is pretty well protected, you can still see some of that.”
Nesting females need near-perfect conditions, he said, to lay their eggs. Sand that’s too warm, vibrations from construction equipment, or even a stick in the way can cause a female to return to the water early.
“Sometimes, they won’t be able to complete the whole process, or they’re rushed through it, so that is a big concern with all this coastal development,” Rosch said.
However, there are solutions. Rosch points to shielded or amber lights, which could be key to humans coexisting with the threatened species.
“Many of those responsible for errant lighting are unaware of its detrimental effects and are generally willing to correct such problems once they are made aware of them,” the Florida technical report reads. “Nonetheless, legislation requiring light management is often needed, and on many nesting beaches it may be the only means of fully resolving light pollution problems.”
Even though some coastal areas in the nation have beach lighting ordinances, many municipalities don’t have the funding to enforce them, according to the report.
Georgetown County has the area’s only comprehensive beachfront lighting ordinance, which it passed in 1989. The ordinance specifically lists its purpose as protecting loggerhead sea turtles.
Any artificial light that can be seen from the beach is banned, including floodlights. Wall-mounted lights need to have hoods, and pole lighting needs to be shielded. Outdoor lighting “shall be held to the minimum necessary for security and convenience.”
Dune crosswalks need low-profile, shielded lights. It’s recommended that windows facing the ocean above a building’s first floor have tinted glass or screen shields. Decorative or recreational lights either have to be shielded, screened or turned off after 10 p.m. from May 1 to Oct. 31.
Violators have 30 days to come into compliance or risk a fee of $50 to $100 for every day they remain in violation.
The ordinance has the community’s support, according to Jackie Broach, a spokesperson for Georgetown County, and enforcement hasn’t generally been an issue.
“Usually, talking to people is enough to fix the problem,” she said. “Some people will not comply, no matter what. Usually, talking to people is all it takes.”
The county plans to take further measures to protect sea turtles, including a proposed ordinance that would ban digging large holes on the beach.
Broach said signs are placed in rental homes to inform visitors about the laws. Some areas are easier to enforce than others, but it’s essentially left up to gated communities to do it.
She said that the county appreciates visitors who comply, even though they don’t have a stake in the issue.
“Once people understand, I think that’s where the main impact comes from,” Broach said.
Myrtle Beach zoning code attempts “to prevent the creation of nuisances, caused by unnecessary intensity of artificial illumination of property, signs, and buildings, to promote the safety and general welfare of the public by the regulation of glare-producing sources of light, to assure the minimum illumination to facilitate enforcement of the law and to protect the threatened or endangered sea turtles which nest on the beach of the City by safeguarding nesting females and hatchlings from artificial light.”
Those rules only apply to certain sections of the shore.
Under the code, the areas between 31st Avenue North and 52nd Avenue North, Highland Avenue and Canepatch Swash, and 77th Avenue North and the northern boundary of the city has specific restrictions.
The code for those areas state that light cannot be directly visible from any point “seaward of the landward toe of the landward-most sand due.” Those same areas can’t be directly, indirectly or cumulatively illuminated. Beach access points, walkovers and walkways must use low-intensity or louvered lighting between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. during nesting season.
Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry County, proposed a bill in the legislature last year that would create a statewide beach lighting ordinance.
The amendment to the Sea Turtle Protection Act would require the SCDNR to identify coastal areas used by sea turtles and ban the use of artificial light to illuminate the beach. The bill would impact spotlights, flashlights, street and security lights, construction and car lights.
Under the bill, homeowners would have five days to come into compliance or face a fine of between $200 to $500 a day that they are in violation.
The bill remains in the Senate Committee on Fish, Game and Forestry.
News13 reached out to Hembree about the bill, and did not receive a response.
Protecting sea turtles is as simple as changing a light fixture to be more turtle-friendly, according to Ranly. The SCDNR provides a list of safe lights, which can include lights that shine straight ground and bulbs that use wavelengths that don’t impact turtles.
“Even though we know as we are developing in the coastal communities, there is a risk for more and more sea turtles,” Ranly said. “The good news is we can mitigate for that and exist in these coastal areas, and coexist with these sea turtles.”
The general rule is to keep lights low, shielded and to use a long-wavelength color – like red.
McClary encourages residents and visitors to stay out of a turtle’s field of vision when a nesting female comes ashore. Since the turtles are classified as endangered, disturbing them in any way is illegal.
He wants rental companies to make lighting rules part of their contracts. If someone is new to the area, he said they should familiarize themselves with the rules.
But, unfortunately, he said, people have to keep pool lights on for insurance reasons. S.C.U.T.E. will often put black screens around the nests to try and eliminate the light shining on them from behind.
It’s all in an effort to conserve one of the area’s most majestic and fascinating species.
“When you see something like a leatherback coming from the sea, it’s like seeing a dinosaur from the Jurassic,” Rosch said.