As far as endangered loggerhead sea turtles are concerned, the most important features of the new Westin Hotel and beachfront retail village being built on Jekyll Island have nothing to do with architecture.
Although they may only be acting on instinct, the turtles care more about the color and positioning of beachfront lighting on the new buildings, something Mark Dodd, Department of Natural Resources biologist, said he and his colleagues watch closely at beachfront developments up and down the coast.
Dodd, who works with a network of monitors to track the annual summer sea turtle nesting along Georgia’s coast, said both the Westin and the retail development being built adjacent to the Jekyll Island Convention Center plan to use amber and reddish beachfront lighting, which does not confuse the turtles.
“Although they see the same spectrum (of light) we do, certain wavelengths disturb them,” Dodd said.
Many of the high frequency wavelengths are created by manmade, artificial light sources. Dodd said heavily lit areas at night tend not to be popular nesting areas for turtles.
Additionally, turtles — adults and hatchlings — tend to head toward the brightest point on the horizon. When there is an absence of artificial light at the beach, that point tends to be the ocean because “they evolved on beaches where there was no artificial light,” Dodd said.
He said all the developed islands along the coast, including St. Simons Island, have ordinances about beachfront lighting, but Dodd commended Jekyll and Tybee islands for crafting ordinances that have more teeth. Jekyll Island’s ordinance was adopted in 2008 and has specific rules about the color of light, where it faces and when it can illuminated.
In the case of Jekyll, plans for new buildings or changes in lighting are submitted to the Jekyll Island Authority and are often reviewed by the Department of Natural Resources.
On beach communities like St. Simons Island, Dodd said the DNR does an annual review of lighting. The advent of LED lights has made adhering to the ordinances easier because LEDs can be made to emit light at a certain wavelength.
In the long run, LEDs and being mindful of how lighting carries may also help to reduce sky-glow, the effect created by city lights at night. Sky-glow can trick a turtle into thinking the ocean is inland, making the nesting mother or her hatchlings crawl away from the ocean.
Dodd said sky-glow from Brunswick can be seen as far away as Little St. Simons Island, a popular sea turtle nesting beach.
Although the 1,205 sea turtle nests discovered in Georgia during this year’s nesting season was less than 2013’s record setting year of nearly 2,300, numbers over the past five years have been trending upward.