Early every morning from May through October, volunteers walk each of the 50 miles of Alabama Gulf beaches. They’re looking for signs that endangered sea turtles have come ashore to nest. More than 500 volunteers patrol the beaches, then watch over nests until hatching time, then try to make sure the baby turtles reach the sea safely.
“We were having a good year. This year, our average now for nests in a year on our beaches is just over 100. We were on track to have about 130,” said Mike Reynolds, founder non-profit group Share The Beach.
Then Hurricane Barry swept across the Gulf. It missed Alabama but sent heavy waves that flooded beaches and turtle nests.
“We lost most of them. Before the storm, the day before the storm, we had eighty one nests that had been identified in Alabama. After the storm, doing our surveys we found that thirty two of them had been completely washed away. There was no sign of them. The eggs were gone completely,” Reynold said.
Hurricanes, however, are not the main threat to turtles.
"The biggest problem sea turtles have in the state of Alabama are lights,” Reynolds said. "That has happened suddenly. It started back in the 50s, suddenly lights were everywhere down here and they started killing sea turtles. We lost so many sea turtles without knowing it."
In 2001, Reynolds and other residents started the Share the Beach program to find and protect nests. Starting with 25 volunteers, the program has grown to 575 participants. One of the first lessons for volunteers is that baby sea turtles are attracted to lights, any lights.
“All the turtles that hatched out on the beach, should have gone out in the water, should have grown up, and come back and nested, ended up in the street and got run over. So, we broke the chain of reproduction here,” he said.
Share the Beach volunteers have also worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to identify areas where lights are distracting turtles.
“One of the things Share the Beach helps us do is identify which of these areas, which of the lights are a problem and we work with those owners, the condo owners to correct their lighting issues,” said Shannon Holbrooke.
She’s a US Fish and Wildlife biologist who works with endangered species in Alabama.
“Technically, once they disorient a turtle, it is a violation of the Endangered Species Act,” Holbrooke said. “But we really try to work with these people to use these resources to retrofit their lights to change things rather than just giving them a violation and have them go to federal court over that.”
But, resolving the lighting issue is more complicated than his flipping a switch.
“We want to be good citizens and resolve this issue, but it’s very expensive,” said Daniel Craven.
He’s a lawyer representing more than 150 coastal condo associations.
“A condo with approximately 100 units is most likely looking at expenditures in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $60,000 to change out this lighting to lighting that has minimum impact on the sea turtles,” Craven said.
Not retrofitting lighting, however, can be much more expensive.
“The potential penalties are enormous. If there is a turtle disorientation that occurs and let’s say that 100 hatchlings get in a pool and these hatchlings are not very big at all. That’s a potential fine of $25,000 per hatchling so if 100 hatchlings get in a swimming pool, that’s $2.5 million,” Craven said.
Holbrooke with U.S. Fish and Wildlife says officials would rather fix problems than fine property owners.
“We’ve been getting really good responses from people. Nobody wants to end up on federal court and have that to deal with because the fines can be excessive,” she said. “That’s why I work with them and say I would rather you spend that money fixing your lights than having to go to court and deal with it that way.”
The cities of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are also beefing up ordinances to protect nesting turtles.
“When we first adopted it in 2006, of course the lighting standards have changed,” said Brandon Franklin, with the building department at Gulf Shores. “There’s been a lot of research as far as what the sea turtles can actually see. There’s been a lot of upgrades to what they consider turtle friendly lights,” he says.
Nesting season is also the height of the Gulf tourist season and Franklin said visitors also have a responsibility to protect turtles.
“We can have all the lighting standards that we have in place, but it’s so important for our tourists who come down to realize at night keeping these doors closed, keeping the windows covered at night, especially during the sea turtle season, that’s important to us as well,” Franklin said.
Despite setbacks, Reynolds feels good about the fate of Alabama sea turtles.
“The future looks good, When you go back and add up all the turtles we have saved from going in the wrong direction since 2001, it’s encouraging,” he said.
Sea turtles take 25 years to reach breeding age and when they do, they return to the beaches where they were born, which means that in a few years, the first turtles saved by volunteers will come back to start a new generation of Alabama sea turtles.