Jekyll Dims Lights for Turtles

Ordinance helps loggerheads nest
Georgia Times Union
By CAROLE HAWKINS, Times-Union correspondent

JEKYLL ISLAND - Low to the ground and red: That is the only type of outdoor lights visitors are likely to see near Jekyll Island beaches within a few months.

The changes will protect threatened loggerhead sea turtles and their hatchlings, which may lose their way back to sea if disoriented by artificial light.

Today, the Jekyll Island Authority board, Jekyll's governing body, is expected to pass an improved "sea-turtle friendly" lighting ordinance. The old lighting ordinance has not been updated since 1981. Recent plans to rebuild and double the number of hotels and condominiums along Jekyll beaches demanded that a more modern policy be adopted.

"Basically this new ordinance means we're doing it the right way now," said Steve Newell, a Jekyll resident and retired biologist who authored the first draft of the new ordinance for the Authority.

There is a lot at stake in Jekyll. Of the state's record 1,544 known turtle nests, 161 are on Jekyll Island's beaches.

The sky-glow on Jekyll's beach has already become dimmer.

In June, Executive Director Jones Hooks directed the Jekyll Island staff to turn off outdoor lights at Blackbeard's Restaurant and two tall pole lights that were illuminating main beach parking lots. Visible from the beach, the lights were not in compliance even under the 1981 ordinance.

Georgia Power is also joining the effort, Jekyll marketing director Eric Garvey said. Within two weeks the company will shield its street lights and convert to low-sodium bulbs, which don't produce as much glow.

"Support for the new ordinance has been fantastic," said Hooks. "I want to thank Georgia Power for quickly addressing our street lights and bringing them in compliance."

Jekyll's 1981 ordinance prohibited outdoor lights that shine directly on the beach. But, environmentalists know a lot more about sea turtles now, said Mark Dodd, a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Coastal Resources Division. A sea turtle expert, Dodd is part of a team of scientists who are rewriting the federal recovery program for loggerheads.

"We know that sea turtles seem to only be disturbed by a lot of blue and green light," Dodd said in an earlier interview. "Amber and red lights are less disturbing."

Scientists have also learned that indirect lighting matters, not just direct lights. Lights oriented up instead of down, ones that bounce off trees, or hotel flood lights can contribute enough sky-glow to confuse sea turtles, Dodd said.

"If it's a dark moonless night and you can still see your shadow on the beach, that's too much light," Dodd said.

Newell, who formerly worked as a research scientist and director of the Marine Institute on Sapelo Island, had proposed a new lighting rule last spring. The draft ordinance he developed was similar to one now used by Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Jekyll projects manager Jim Broadwell brought the draft to DNR for its recommendations. DNR staff, including Dodd, developed the final version.

The new rules require red or amber outdoor lights, low pressure sodium bulbs, or turtle-safe coated and compact fluorescent lamps under 13 watts.

Exterior lights within line-of-sight with the beach must point down and be completely shielded. Parking lot lights cannot stand more than 48 inches off the ground.

Newell said the new, more specific language makes it clear what kind of lights are needed for compliance.

He also praised a requirement to tint hotel windows to transmit 45 percent of light or less on all rooms facing the beach. Some rooms in the planned new hotels will reach as high as 60 feet.

"We know visitors are going to have their lights on when they go into those rooms," said Newell. "Without the tinting it might as well be a big light pole on the beach."

The ordinance makes non-compliance a lease violation for Jekyll business owners.

But enforcement for guests who walk nighttime beaches may prove a little more complex. Campfires and bonfires are prohibited on the beach during nesting season under the new rules.

Vehicles are already prohibited on Georgia beaches except in special circumstances.

"Our approach will be to work towards better education for our guests and also the staff and workers on the island," said Garvey. An educational brochure is being developed for distribution at stores and hotels, he said.

The Jekyll ordinance will likely set a new standard for Georgia beach development projects. Noel Holcomb, chairman of the Department of Natural Resources' Shore Protection Committee, has said he intends to promote these same principles when permitting future projects under Georgia's Shore Protection Act.

To read the amended sea turtle ordinance click here.