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Engaged couple's bliss endangers baby sea turtles

In many circles, the knock on men is that they aren't romantic enough. Sure, they may come up with a good idea here and there, but it's just not their specialty. Wives and girlfriends, often content just to know their guy is trying, will fawn over the slightest effort. But sometimes we've just got to hand it to some dudes.

A couple of months ago, one man took his girlfriend on a vacation to the South Carolina coast. With his creative juices flowing, he had placed about 150 luminaries (small, shaded candles) along the beach in the shape of a heart. Then, at night, with the sound of the waves lapping against the sandy shore and with the stars shining from the dark sky above, he asked for his girlfriend's hand in marriage. After an enthusiastic acceptance, the couple ran back to their rental home -- I assume in a rush to get a head start on reserving a caterer and deciding on table assignments for the reception.

In their excitement, they left the candles on the beach, burning through the night. What they surely didn't appreciate was how their actions may affect local wildlife. You see, there was romance in the air for sea turtles as well. After mating, from May through August, female loggerhead sea turtles will crawl onto beaches along the Southeastern United States and laboriously lay about 100 eggs into nests they dig with their back flippers. Hatchling sea turtles, miniature versions of the massive adults, will emerge from the nest at night a couple months later. As soon as they break the surface of the sand, they are especially vulnerable to predation by raccoons and ghost crabs, so they attempt to make for the sea as quickly as possible.

It's thought that these little sea turtles may find the ocean by heading toward the moonlight reflected on the water. So, the lights associated with most coastal communities are confusing and hazardous for them. Street lights, for example, may disorient them, causing them to travel in directions far from the safety of the water. The little reptiles become easy prey or simply wander until they eventually perish. It's a sad fate for these animals, rare and of conservation concern wherever they can be found.

Many coastal cities have strict lighting ordinances. Homes and businesses along the beach typically comply out of respect for the turtles or for fear of fines associated with ignoring the rules. Encouragingly, there is usually broad support for these ordinances, especially since compromises exist, like low wattage bulbs placed in strategic locations away from the beach. Within the community, most everyone knows about their sea turtles. But unfortunately tourists are sometimes left in the dark.

The morning after the romantic proposal, a sea-turtle volunteer assigned with monitoring local nesting activity was dismayed to find the tracks of 60 baby sea turtles scattered across the beach. The many candles had terribly disoriented them and none were thought to have survived.

The newly-engaged couple learned a horrible lesson the next day as they were confronted by angry sea-turtle volunteers, saddened by the loss of the nestlings. These volunteers invest so much in the safety of the imperiled reptiles, year after year. They protect the nests from predators and monitor the population to know if their numbers are on the rise. They conduct education efforts to teach others about the importance of conservation and how seemingly harmless actions may influence our natural surroundings.

Their efforts are so valuable to sea turtle conservation. But sometimes people fall through the cracks. And when they do they present an opportunity to learn how future education efforts can be even more effective.

David A. Steen is an Auburn University Ph.D. candidate. After living and working in Southwest Georgia for years, he now returns to conduct his research. He can be reached at davidasteen@gmail.com. His columns appear monthly in SouthView.