Over the winter, Chatham County retrofitted the pavilion’s 38 lights, making them turtle-friendly just in time for nesting season. Along with the color change from a harsh blue, the light no longer spills onto the beach and is less intense.
The project, which involved the cooperation of not just the county, which owns the pier, but also the Tybee Island Marine Science Center, the city of Tybee and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, cost about $8,000, said Fred Thompson, superintendent of the county’s Facilities Maintenance & Operations.
“Everything has a right to life, especially our turtles,” Thompson said. Loggerheads are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The pavilion’s lighting retrofit is just the latest element of an ongoing campaign to make Tybee a more attractive place for turtles to nest and a safer place for the resulting hatchlings to make their debuts.
Studies show that females shy away from brightly lit beaches, said Mark Dodd, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources and Georgia’s sea turtle coordinator. Tybee sees far lower nesting density than other Georgia beaches, even other developed ones, notably St. Simons and Jekyll. Tybee averages 1.4 nests per kilometer compared to 12.3 statewide. Last year there were 10 nests on Tybee. So far this year there are four nests.
Hatchlings use lighting as a cue, heading for the brightest place on the horizon. Before the advent of electric lighting, it was a safe bet that this strategy would take them to the moonlit sea.
But not so on Tybee in recent years. About three years ago, some hatchlings disoriented by lights went inland, ending up as road kill on U.S. 80 near the anchor. Others have been found trapped in swimming pools, Dodd said.
Tybee has already dealt with its own parking lot lights near the pier, working with Georgia Power to find a shield that wouldn’t reflect light toward the beach. The Ocean Plaza Beach Resort pitched in by turning off its balcony lights above the first floor.
“We’re really getting rid of a lot of glow on that part of the island,” said City Manager Diane Schleicher.
With the pavilion in better shape for turtles, the Tybee Island Marine Science is turning its attention to a project that will map out where light still spills onto the beach and superimpose on that the sites of nests laid this year to try to detect patterns, said Executive Director Maria Procopio.
And there’s the never-ending process of reminding residents and visitors alike to turn off beachfront lighting after 9 p.m. in nesting and hatching season, which runs from May through October. A recent water bill on Tybee carried a refrigerator magnet reminder. The center is also supplying hotels and other rentals with 10,000 key card envelopes that carry a “lights out” message.
“It has to be ongoing because visitors change all the time,” Procopio said.