Credit: Chris Hintz / Savannah State University
Researchers are generating a ‘turtle's-eye view’ of the beach to save Georgia's baby sea turtles
Loggerhead sea turtles have long been classified under federal law as a threatened species, with most conservation efforts focused on protecting adults.
But in Coastal Georgia, some researchers are turning their attention to the babies, and trying to see things from their point of view — literally.
Kneeling on the sandy beach of Jekyll Island on a cloudy dark night, Savannah State University marine science professor Chris Hintz takes out his DSLR camera.
“We try to keep it close to the ground to be as close to what a turtle can see,” he says, shining red light from a special flashlight to help navigate the nearly pitch-black conditions.
“All right, we're gonna take the pictures. There it goes,” he says, lifting himself up with a grunt as the camera begins taking long-exposure shots, swiveling remotely for the next 10 minutes to piece together a panorama.
Hintz and his team are on a mission to generate a turtle's-eye view of Georgia's barrier islands, as seen from the perspective of hatchlings.
The goal is to pinpoint sources of light pollution that can disorient babies as they try to waddle their way to the ocean. Instinctively, hatchlings head toward the brightest horizon, which is usually over the ocean — unless there's enough artificial light to throw them off course.
“If a hatchling sea turtle were to hatch on the beach right where we are right now, if there was a bright white light inland, the animal would turn and head straight towards that, as opposed to heading straight towards the ocean,” said Georgia Sea Turtle conservationist David Zailo.
Despite Jekyll Island's stringent lighting ordinance — which restricts the amount and types of light that can be emitted by hotels and other buildings during nesting and hatching season — Zailo has recently noticed some hatchlings getting misoriented or disoriented toward the forest, where they are more likely to become prey.
Misorientation occurs when a turtle goes in a single wrong direction, compared to disorientation, in which a turtle caroms in multiple directions like a pinball.
“If turtles are expending energy that they need to go out into the Atlantic, they're less likely to be successful in starting their lives,” Hintz said. “If we can limit the struggles that they have early in life, they're more likely to be successful and become the next generation of turtles.”
Assisting with the camerawork was Savannah State graduate student Emma Patterson, whose master's thesis explores the impact of artificial light on sea turtle hatchlings.
“A lot of people were hesitant to look at it because they thought it could impact tourism and things like that if they start looking at lighting impacts,” she said. “Now, it's finally become important enough and people are realizing that it could impact tourism in positive ways.”
A few days later, Hintz feeds the pictures into a computer program that he and his team developed themselves, featuring peculiar lines of code such as “TURTLE VISION = TRUE.”
The software has a lot of data to sift through: 130 million pixels, as three versions of each view were shot using different exposure times in order to capture the darkest of darks and the brightest of brights — a photographic technique known as bracketing.
Once the images are processed, the computer screen renders an otherworldly mosaic dominated by shades of blue and punctuated by splotches of white in the distance from artificial light.
It's like seeing the beach through night vision goggles, if those goggles were made by Smurfs.
“Turtles can see blue so much better than we can,” Hintz said. “We just can't see it. Even if it's there, we just don't notice that it's there.”
Turtle vision isn't just for show. The images and data will be shared with conservationists, helping them determine how best to adjust habitats and nests in order to shield hatchlings from the worst of the light pollution on Georgia's barrier islands.
“Many of the conservation individuals go out there and they see turtles getting misoriented, but they don't have hard numbers,” Hintz explained. “They say, ‘I see this light on the beach. This is causing the problem.’ But there's no hard evidence of that. And I think we're starting to produce that.”
Like disorientation itself, the conditions that lead sea turtles astray are not straightforward: it's not just light pollution, but also cloud cover, the height of sand dunes, the location of the maritime forest and the shape of the beach.
“This is just the beginning,” Patterson said. “Even after my thesis is over, people can continue to look at other impacts that we didn't get a chance to look at or we didn't even think of.”