Couple's romantic beach night turns tragic for turtles

A romantic marriage proposal on a Hilton Head Island beach Tuesday night had an unintended consequence - the death of about 60 federally protected loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings.

A man had placed about 150 luminarias - bags with lit candles inside - in the shape of a heart on the beach near Palmetto Dunes, according to volunteers with the Sea Turtle Project who monitor the nests.

After the proposal, the visiting couple apparently retired to their rental home without extinguishing the lights.

An estimated 60 baby sea turtles emerged from a nearby nest a short time later and became disoriented by the light, said Sarah Skigen, natural resources associate for the town of Hilton Head Island and a turtle patrol volunteer.

The next morning, Skigen and others found tiny tracks heading in all directions, except toward the ocean. Some tracks repeatedly encircled the luminarias where the hatchlings succumbed either to weakness or ghost crabs.

Others headed into the sand dunes, nearby lagoons and backyards.

One live hatchling was found, but it was so weak it is not expected to survive, Skigen said.

The couple received a warning from the town and a lecture from furious sea turtle volunteers. They showed remorse for what happened and said they had no idea about light restrictions in place from May through October for beachfront properties, according to Skigen. Placing luminarias on the beach also is forbidden by local laws.

Town code enforcement officers routinely patrol the beachfront after dark to enforce the lights-out policy. Most people comply after receiving a warning. But the law carries a $1,092 fine for those who don't.

The Sea Turtle Project supplies rental agencies, hotels and villas with pamphlets explaining the importance of turning off any lights that could confuse nesting mothers or their offspring. The rule is posted inside many rental homes and hotel rooms.

Despite all the outreach to tourists, this summer has been especially bad in terms of the number of disoriented hatchlings, said Carlos Chacon, manager of natural history for the Coastal Discovery Museum.

With about a month remaining in nesting season, hatchlings from 14 nests have headed the wrong direction because of artificial light, up from an average of 10 nests a year, Chacon said. Not all were total losses, as was the case Tuesday night.

"Unfortunately, we have so many people who come into town every week that it's hard to reach everybody to remind them to turn off their lights," Chacon said.

The volunteers hope this recent incident will serve as a reminder.

Hatchlings instinctively follow the brightest light, which was the glare off the ocean in the days before electricity and extensive development along the coast.

It is especially important to turn off lights when the moon is waning, as it is now.

Volunteers say most of the eggs from the nest near the luminarias on Palmetto Dunes hatched late Tuesday. A second batch was expected to climb out of the nest Wednesday.

"There's a hope some will survive," Skigen said.