Sea Turtles Face Habitat Loss on Jekyll Island


Introduction: Man vs. Turtle

Jekyll Island preserves and protects what is probably the last unspoiled coastline on the eastern seaboard that is easily accessible by automobile to people of all walks of life and all income levels. The Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which opened to widespread acclaim in June 2007, drew 600 visitors a day during the summer to participate in the educational programs, view the exhibits, and visit the turtles receiving treatment. GSTC was placed on Jekyll rather than on a remote barrier island specifically so that the public can learn about the plight of our endangered sea turtles.
GSTC is not a petting zoo, it is not a theme park, it is not a museum: it is a marine veterinary hospital that allows the public to witness first hand the damage that we have done and continue to do. We purchase turtle-themed pottery, t-shirts and jewelry from the gift shop, and we feel good about ourselves. Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of the GSTC staff and the local medical community, the first two patients, both endangered loggerhead sea turtles, tragically died of grave injuries caused by boat propeller strikes. Diamondback terrapins, classified by the DNR as “unusual,” and other freshwater turtles fall victim to cars on the Jekyll Island causeway and routinely receive treatment at the Center as well. GSTC is in fact a dynamic, working testament to man’s negative impact on coastal ecology brought about by increased development and the systematic destruction of the habitat of our endangered, protected species.
We have the power to mitigate these effects. In fact, at least two major factors, both within man’s control, dramatically impact upon the current nesting sea turtle population and future generations of sea turtles on Jekyll Island. One factor is artificial lighting, and the second is the placement of hotels and residences too close to the beach.

Artificial Light Results in Habitat Loss

  • Nesting Turtles. Artificial light on beaches may deter the nesting female from emerging from the water and from nesting on the beach. If the turtle does lay her eggs, artificial lighting may delay or prevent her successful return to the water

  • Hatchlings. When hatchlings escape from nests on naturally lighted beaches, they demonstrate an innate and immediate orientation towards the water, which is the brightest horizon they can see. On artificially lighted beaches, hatchlings are misdirected by bright lights or even by sky glow, and by the illumination of the turtle’s horizon that comes from bright or numerous lights located behind the primary dunes, even from a great distance away. Hatchlings either become disoriented, in which case they move in the wrong direction, or disoriented, in which case they may travel in circles. In the former case they may end up in parking lots or streets or become easy prey for larger animals; in the latter, they become exhausted and dehydrated before they can reach the water. Both scenarios end in death.

Best Available Technology (BAT) Mitigates Effects of Beachfront Lighting

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission table shows that in a 2006 study of multiple light sources, condominium lighting was the major contributor to nearly half of the 1,521 total hatchling disorientation events, followed by city glow and street lights, which were involved in nearly one-third of such events.1
Ironically, according to a Florida Marine Research Institute Technical Report, “Of the many ecological disturbances caused by human beings, light pollution may be among the most manageable.” 2 Technology has improved along with the understanding of the way that a turtle views the world. To find its way to the ocean, the sea turtle hatchling relies primarily on vision, which is affected by several cues as the result of internal sensors in the eye:
  • Brightness. The hatchling will move towards the brightest light.
  • Color. The loggerhead hatchling will avoid high intensity yellow lights. On the other hand, ultraviolet, violet, and bug-zapper lights are very attractive to the hatchling.
  • Shape. The hatchling will orient towards open spaces and away from dune profiles and vegetation, because these features darken the horizon from the turtle’s perspective.

Best Available Technology (BAT) may be defined as a strategy for reducing the effects of light pollution to the greatest extent practicable. This strategy includes the following actions during sea turtle nesting season, which is May-September in Georgia:
  • Turn off unnecessary lights. (Turn off decorative lighting, lighting of areas that do not require security, and lighting of areas with no foot traffic; reduce wattage to the minimum)
  • Minimize beach lighting from outdoor sources. (Turn off or remove luminaires; reduce wattage; focus light only where needed; shield light sources; use recessed lighting; lower pole lights; install timers and motion detectors; use hidden walkway lighting on ramps)
  • Minimize beach lighting from indoor sources. (Turn off lights in rooms not in use; relocate lamps away from windows; tint windows to reduce light visible from the inside to 45% or less; close opaque curtains or blinds.)
  • Use alternative, long-wavelength light sources. (Substitute low pressure sodium vapor lighting for more disruptive sources; use yellow filters and bug lights as a less expensive, less effective alternative; install red LEDs for pathway lighting.)
  • Use light screens and enhance dune profile. (Plant native vegetation or erect artificial light screens on dunes; fill in and replant dune cuts, pathways, and washout areas.)

Irresponsible Development Results in Habitat Loss

In choosing a nest site, female loggerhead turtles select a location that lies between the shoreline and the primary dunes on the beach. Where beach armoring exists, turtles cannot nest. Thanks to the existence of beach armoring that was put in place decades ago to protect buildings and prevent erosion on the north end of Jekyll Island, approximately one third of the shoreline is off-limits to nesting turtles. The only viable nesting sites for sea turtles on Jekyll have therefore been the center of the island and the south end. The center of the island is the future location of  Linger Longer Communities’ proposed town center, which will comprise some 65 acres of convention complex, retail space, time shares, hotels, and condominiums. Farther south is the site of the Jekyll Crow’s 540-room Canopy Bluff Resort, which will include a large convention center, a six-story hotel, and a five story parking deck. “Close proximity to turtle nesting areas“ has been cited among Canopy Bluff’s “amenities.” Adjacent to Canopy Bluff will be a Spring Hill Suites, soon to be constructed by Jekyll Ocean Oaks. The southernmost part of the island is currently protected from further development under House Bill 214.

Effective Planning Mitigates Effects of Development

On July 2, 2007, a letter was written by Brad Winn of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division, Nongame Conservation Section, to the Jekyll Island Authority. In that letter, Winn recommends the following: “The Comprehensive Shoreline Management Plan should include a study to model erosion rates and shoreline shift over a 100-year period; incorporating recent information on projected rates of sea level rise would be very valuable in planning development so as to avoid the need for beach armoring. New structures should be placed landward of the 100 year predicted shoreline.”
To date, no such study has been performed, and redevelopment plans put forth by Linger Longer Communities and the Trammell Crow Company suggest that shops, restaurants, condos, conference centers and hotels will be located closer to the shoreline than the much more limited development that they are to replace. Furthermore, it is implied by the Jekyll Island Authority that conservation planning will go hand in hand with redevelopment, instead of preceding it.

The Role of the Jekyll Island Authority and the DNR

Ideally, under the leadership of the JIA, responsible planning and green building practices must be implemented in order to protect the wildlife, native plants, character, and ecosystems of Jekyll Island State Park. Current ordinances, drafted in the early 1990’s, do not sufficiently address inappropriate human behaviors or best current available technologies for beachfront lighting. With the partnership of the Department of Natural Resources, efforts to protect the endangered loggerhead sea turtle must include:
  • Adherence to ordinances that have been amended to require state of the art technology for beach lighting to protect the endangered loggerhead sea turtle. These ordinances should clearly specify type and locations of lighting fixtures and bulbs.
  • Performance of a 100 year shoreline study before new construction begins, and adherence to DNR recommendations about the location of such construction following the completion of that study.

Our Role

Man is a selfish species, but we can mitigate our negative impact. We still have an opportunity to halt the damage, at least on this precious barrier island. Jekyll has a unique role in the hearts and minds of most Georgians. Unfortunately, the hearts and minds of key decision makers become engaged elsewhere on occasion. It is up to us, the public, to speak up once again to save this irreplaceable treasure.
The Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island stands behind the responsible revitalization of Jekyll Island State Park, redeveloping existing hotels and enhancing convention facilities and family dining opportunities. Eventually, it may become necessary to approach the General Assembly for legislation that would protect the park from inappropriate and damaging development. Statewide support will be necessary to initiate and advance that legislation.

Dory Ingram
Atlanta Metro Coordinator
Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island