Turtle Safe Lighting Opens the Door for an Intimate Sea Turtle Encounter

Sea Turtles Dig Turtle Safe Lighting

Nothing is more romantic than walking hand in hand with your loved ones on a Jekyll Island beach at night, with the sparkling reflections of the stars and moon dancing on the water.

Unless, of course, you're a loggerhead turtle during nesting season. Then, the nocturnal beachscape means all business, 'cause you're thinking only one thing - it's time to lay eggs!

That's if you're an adult loggerhead turtle. If you're a newly hatched youngster - called a "hatchling" - you're more concerned with digging out of your nest and finding your way to the ocean without becoming some predators supper.

But if the beach you're nesting on doesn't have turtle safe lighting, you could be in deep trouble.

Bad Lighting! Bad!!!

Jekyll Island is a prime sea turtle nesting habitat. Instinct coupled with warm summer evenings draw hundreds of loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) to the beach each year. Sea turtles are like graceful ballerinas of the deep when in the water. But when dragging themselves from the surf to nest, they're more like clunky Edsels, barely able to maneuver out of their element.


Sea turtles are vulnerable once free of the water, and bright lights from hotels, automobiles, streetlights, and beachcombers with conventional flashlights can disorient them, making it hard for the reptiles to negotiate the wide sandy expanse to their nesting spots at dune's edge.

That hard, slogging trek through loose sand to lay their eggs is tiring work. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "going into labor"!

After preparing the nest and laying eggs, the exhausted sea turtles lumber back to the sea, leaving their clutch to incubate for 50 to 65 days. Soon, a horde of around 100 cute little hatchlings break free of the egg and poke their beaks above ground, seeking mother - mother ocean, that is.

Hatchlings are even more adversely affected by light than their mothers. They home in on that reflected moon and star light to find their way to the ocean. Bright, artificial lighting can cause them to become "mis-oriented" (resulting in the little ones responding to the glaring artificial lights instead of the moon and starlight reflecting from the sea. They wind up lost in the dunes, where predators can easily snack on them).

Turtle Safe Lighting Required on Jekyll Island

Jekyll Island and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center have recognized the sea turtle's plight, and, in partnership with the Dept. of Natural Resources, have developed a Beach Lighting Ordinance to protect them. Take a gander at the latest info on the lighting ordinance; it was amended in 2015.

The Ordinance deals with what kind of lights are allowed in hotels, rental homes, parking lots and other outdoor use adjacent to beach nesting areas. Generally, this means structures and fixtures should use low-wattage, non-spreading lights close to ground level. No high, bright, unshielded fixtures shining directly out to sea are allowed.

Of more concern to Jekyll Island nighttime beach strollers, however, are the sections of the ordinance dealing with light use on the beach. Prohibited uses include

  • no motorized vehicles (except emergency and authorized scientific study vehicles in certain situations)
  • no bonfires or campfires
  • no lanterns or flashlights (unless they're classified as turtle safe lighting producing light of 580 nm or longer wave length, called "true red")
  • no fireworks (except those used by authorized personnel at sanctioned events)

Observing Sea Turtles Safely Using Turtle Safe Lighting

Georgia has around 1,544 sea turtle nesting sites along its beaches. Of these, approximately 161 are on Jekyll Island. Families have a wonderful opportunity to observe either adult turtles nesting and laying eggs, or hatchlings emerging and making their way back to the sea.

The safest, most ecologically-friendly way to take advantage of this opportunity is to book a sanctioned "Turtle Walk" through the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. The walks are held from June through July, the peak nesting season. On these walks, visitors are accompanied by a Sea Turtle Center professional, who guides them to known nesting sites and offers his or her insights into turtle behavior.

Martha and I have gone on these walks before, and they're fun and instructive. (Take a hint from someone who's been there, done that: bring a light wind breaker or sweat shirt; it can get chilly in the evenings).

During August and September, join the staff and other brave and adventurous souls in a guided "Nest Walk", to look for emergent hatchlings.

Another great opportunity is the Sea Turtle Center's "Ride Along Patrols", which gives you the chance to play biologist (along side real professionals, of course!).

You don't have to do your exploring as part of a group. There's nothing to stop you from heading out on your own. Just stay back from the nest areas, and don't disturb the sea turtles as they go about their business.

And substitute red light bulbs with a wavelength of 650 nm or so for the white ones that come with your flashlight. Research shows that sea turtles exhibit the greatest degree of indifference to light in this wavelength.

Turtle Safe Lighting - Make Your Adventures Safe for the Turtles!

So that your family can enjoy their sea turtle adventures to the utmost, check with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center to see what type flashlights they recommended for safe sea turtle discovery excursions.

If you don't find something suitable at the Sea Turtle facility, check out this site, which is geared especially to turtle friendly flashlights (it was invented by a Georgia boy, too!).

Turtle Safe Online

A Family Learning Experience

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center not only offers Turtle Walks. They offer a full complement of learning activities for adults and kids. Drop in and sign up!

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