About 700 sea turtle hatchlings are estimated to have died on Hilton Head Island beaches already this summer and some say flashlights could be partly to blame.
Town and non-profit officials are trying to get the word out - turn off the flashlights.
“Hatchlings follow the brightest light,” said Amber Keuhn, Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project manager. “If you are a flashlight walking down the beach, you are going to be the brightest light and they will be following you.”
It is likely the hatchlings will follow the flashlight away from the ocean, Keuhn said. She said getting to the ocean by sunup is the only chance the turtles to survival.
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An alternative for night beachgoers is a red LED flashlight.
“The hatchlings can see a red light but they are not drawn to it,” Keuhn said.
Hilton Head beaches are seeing a record-breaking year for Loggerhead Sea Turtles nests with 408 counted. The record was set in 2013 with 339 nests.
As soon as the sun comes up they will be eaten by crows, crabs, sea gulls or sometimes even a raccoon.
Amber Keuhn, Hilton Head Island Sea Turtle Protection Project manager
New nests could continue being laid until the end of August and hatching season continues through October.
About 154 are estimated to have hatched on the island so far, Keuhn said. Each nests hatch about 100 turtles.
Volunteers have documented seven nests that evidence shows most likely perished because they were distracted by the artificial light, Keuhn said. She said artificial light could also include lights from a house.
Tracks from the nests help volunteers determine if the turtles survived the night, Keuhn said. If the two-inch wide path leads away from the ocean it is assumed they did not.
Often the turtles are never found, Keuhn said.
“As soon as the sun comes up they will be eaten by crows, crabs, sea gulls or sometimes even a raccoon,” Keuhn said.
Shauna Williams, of Indiana, stooped down to pick up a piece of trash washed to shore on Hilton Head on Wednesday night. The sway of her flashlight guided her course.
Upon hearing about how lights could affect sea turtles Williams switched off the flashlight.
“We have been visiting Hilton Head for 30 years,” Williams, who owns a timeshare on the island, said. “We have never heard about flashlights.”
Williams said she would be purchasing a red flashlight and expressed confusion about the traditional flashlights for sale around the island.
“Everywhere you go flashlights are for sale because people want them for the beach,” Williams said.
Jayme Lopko, Town of Hilton Head town planner, said town officials realize that there is a need to educate people on flashlights.
“People think of the house lights but they don’t know about the flashlights,” Lopko said. “We really haven’t pinpointed how to educate people about flashlights.”
Keuhn said her organization is working to address the issue.
Starting next year information about flashlights will be added to a sign posted next to sea turtle nests, Keuhn said. She said the organization also will work to get red flashlights into resort gift shops and other area stores.
Doormats, door hangers and fliers also went out to property managers regarding lights on the beach this year, Keuhn said.
“We have a real struggle educating people because of the amount of people who come through,” Keuhn said. “The hope is that they will return and bring the knowledge back with them.”
The town of Hilton Head does have an ordinance that requires artificial lights be turned off on property within sight of the beach after dark during sea turtle season. It does not address lights used by visitors walking on the beach.