COCOA BEACH, Fla. — Legions of tiny turtles drawn to bright city lights march up a causeway ramp between two beachfront restaurants, often to their deaths.
This infuriates Dave Hochberg, a volunteer with the Sea Turtle Preservation Society. The city of Cocoa Beach can assess fines of as much as $100 for shining light on the beach, and last week fined the owners of land leased to a Chevron station a $1,000-a-day fine for violating Brevard County's 12-year-old sea turtle lighting ordinance, $8,000 in all.
But turtle watchers say that the city itself is among the worst violators.
"They want other people to follow their code, and they're not following it themselves," said Hochberg, a resident of Melbourne Beach, Fla.
The lights on the Minuteman Causeway — like many of the city's 330 streetlights — cause newly hatched turtles to wander toward Atlantic Avenue, instead of the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes to untimely deaths underneath tires. It happened most recently on Monday.
Biologists say baby sea turtles must spend their first burst of energy swimming to reach floating seaweed they eat about 15 miles offshore.
Freshly hatched sea turtles crawl toward the brightest light, usually a moonlit ocean. When they follow porch lights, street lamps and other artificial lighting, they instead end up as road kill, succumb to predators or die of exhaustion.
One light can disorient hundreds of hatchlings at a time.
County code says no lights can be visible at night — 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. — from the beach during sea turtle nesting season, May 1 to Nov. 1.
Brevard County has some of the most important nesting beaches in the world for sea turtles. A quarter of the world's loggerhead sea turtles nest in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge alone.
City officials won't turn off the lights on the Minutemen Causeway because of safety concerns. They're working with Florida Power & Light Co. to fix the problem within the next few weeks, then they'll address lights elsewhere in the city.
"Certainly, we're sensitive to and will accommodate the needs of the turtles. But we also need to consider the safety of the residents," said Sandy Sanderson, a power company spokesman.
State officials want the city to lower the 35-foot-high lights at Minutemen to 12 feet or lower so they won't shine on the beach and change the bulbs to a low-pressure sodium, red neon or other type of bulb less attractive to the turtles.
Meanwhile, baby turtles keep running up the ramp. About 10 finger-size turtles got smashed late last week, and 50 were rescued by employees at Coconuts On the Beach and the Beach Shack.
Then, on Monday, another herd of turtles toddled up the ramp, as night workers at the two restaurants again scrambled to save them.
Code enforcement officials said they encourage owners to reconfigure lights or put shades on them, rather than just turn them off.
"We never tell people to flick your lights off. Shade and shield is what we tell them," Code Enforcement Director Bobby Bowen said.