100+ sea turtle hatchlings lost to light pollution at Wrightsville Beach, advocates say

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WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. (WNCN) – A group that works to protects sea turtles fears for the safety of several remaining nests after more than 100 baby sea turtles hatched, but never made to the ocean at Wrightsville Beach.

Volunteers with the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project believe light pollution drew the hatchlings to a nearby pier rather than the water.

“Oh my gosh.  These are incredible beings. What can we do to help them survive? They are all threatened or endangered in some way. We don’t want to lose them from our planet,” said volunteer Janice McCarthy.

As a volunteer, McCarthy takes weekly walks along Wrightsville Beach near Johnnie Mercer’s Pier, looking for sea turtle nests and hatchling tracks.

She was walking near the pier near Shearwater Street on June 4 when she made a discovery – a nest with 112 loggerhead turtle eggs inside.

“Is this for real?  Did we really find a nest?  It was really exciting.  It was the first time I’d found a nest,” she said.

McCarthy says it takes 50 to 75 days before the sea turtles hatch. She says they began monitoring the nest for any activity on day 50.

Volunteers dug a trench from the nest to the water to help guide the babies one they hatched. McCarthy and other volunteers also kept a watchful eye well into each night.

She says on July 23, she stayed at the beach until nearly midnight but saw no sign on activity.

Then on July 24, volunteers discovered hatchlings tracks that lead to the water, but then turned toward the pier.

“Their instinct is to go toward light.  They are looking for the horizon and looking for white caps, but to them that means light,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy found several tracks near the pier, but didn’t find any live hatchlings. She’s hopeful someone helped them into the water, but fear most were eaten by crabs or seagulls.

“Of course I was disappointed,” said Gabe Legere, who works at the Johnnie Mercer Fishing Pier.

Legere agrees light pollution is a problem, but says lights on the pier cannot be turned off for safety reasons.

“It’s sad that it takes this to make people realize light pollution is an issue, but I’m hoping that’s what this does.  That more restaurants and businesses are considering alternatives to keeping the lights on all night,” he said.

McCarthy agrees the lights on the pier need to remain on, but still worries about the future of the eight remaining sea turtle nests on Wrightsville Beach.

“Losing that many is really disheartening.  They have a lot of predators in the ocean so the survival rate is not great,” she said.

McCarthy says picking up or disturbing a hatchling can result in a $50,000 fine or a year in jail. She suggests if someone sees a hatchling or a nest on the beach to call the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project at (833) 488-7853.

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