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Blinding lights

Frequent ‘lights out’ offender gets a turtle-friendly makeover.

Story by Amber Kuehn. Marine biologist Amber Kuehn is the leader of Turtle Patrol HHI.

Before
After

In 2017, there were 38 nests on Hilton Head beach that misoriented toward beachfront lights, resulting in an estimated 4,000 hatchlings that never reached the ocean. The following year, I started accompanying a code enforcement officer for light patrol, so that they could now alternate Saturday nights in June, July and August, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. These two individuals monitor the entire island for anything from illegal signage and parking violations to sound and lighting ordinance violations.

Over the years, I noticed that certain beachfront addresses were frequent “lights out” offenders. I learned the route to their front door to deliver the warnings on the following Monday mornings without using Google maps. Each time, someone new answered the door: “Good morning, my name is Amber Kuehn and I manage Sea Turtle Patrol Hilton Head Island. How are you this morning? … Great! I know that you have just checked in and may not know that there is a town ordinance* requiring all beachfront homes to have their exterior lights off after 10 p.m., May through October, unless they are recessed or downward facing and shielded from the beach. The reason that this is important is because these lights attract endangered loggerhead hatchlings that are emerging from their nests at night. They will follow the brightest light. Your porch light was brighter than the moon on Saturday night.” I say lightheartedly with a big smile.

Usually, they are happy to learn and ask more questions. Some of them invite me in for coffee (no, but thank you), and some of them deny it, so I show them the time-stamped picture from Saturday night.

“Can I ask you to do me a small favor? Awesome! If you can have those lights off after 10 p.m. for the rest of the week so that the nest out front is not misoriented when it hatches, it would be so helpful to the Sea Turtle Patrol and especially the hatchlings. We all want the hatchlings in the ocean, instead of backyards and swimming pools. Here is some literature explaining why it is so important to protect our sea turtles — and a cool sticker for you. Y’all have a great vacation, and thank you so much!”

Then I call the rental agency to make sure that they are reminding their patrons. As soon as they hear my name, they know what I’m going to ask. I had an idea for a public awareness project. I asked code enforcement to go back through records to find the most frequent offender. The result was an address on Ibis Street in North Forest Beach. I knew it well. I contacted the rental management company and they agreed to contact the owner of the property to present my proposal.

I’m sure it went something like this: “Yeah, the sea turtle lady wants to replace your eight exterior porch lights on all three stories with downward facing fixtures, insert sea turtle friendly light bulbs with shields, and replace the 10 understory tube fluorescent light fixtures with recessed LED panels on timers and dimmers at no charge … Why? Something to do with saving sea turtle hatchlings that seem to be attracted to the property.”

Who would say no to that proposal? The owners accepted and made a donation to Sea Turtle Patrol HHI. There have been no misorientations at this address since the project was completed in July 2019. July 1 is the official beginning of hatching season, and this is our celebrated 2020 season opener! I hope that other property owners will see that these adjustments are well worth the result.

This project was funded by donations from Palmetto Electric, Taylor Made Electric, the Women’s Association of Hilton Head Island and Palmetto Dunes Cares. For more information and to learn how to help the sea turtles, visit SeaTurtlePatrolHHI.org and select the “Lights Out” tab or follow us on Facebook or Instagram at #hhiseaturtle.

*A revision of the town municipal code Chapter Five (5) Title 8 sections 111 -117, was initiated in April 2019 and is still in progress. The goal is to make it easier to understand and to update the verbiage from 1990 to reflect current sea turtle biology as it pertains to lighting standards.


Lights out for turtles

The loggerhead sea turtle is the state reptile of South Carolina and the most common sea turtle nester along our shores. July 1 is the official beginning of hatching season. If your home or building is visible from the beach, turn off your outside lights after 10 p.m. through November.