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Researchers want to see through the eyes of baby turtles


Many communities along the coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have tried to limit bright lights on their beaches to help nesting sea turtles. Even so, a lot of turtle hatchlings get disoriented when they try to find the ocean. Researchers are trying to understand why by looking at things from the turtle's point of view. Benjamin Payne of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.


BENJAMIN PAYNE, BYLINE: Jekyll Island on Georgia's coast is a popular nesting spot for loggerhead sea turtles. One reason, says Georgia sea turtle conservationist David Zailo...

DAVID ZAILO: We've got a pretty stringent lighting ordinance, so that restricts the amount and types of lighting that can be emitted onto the beach during sea turtle nesting and hatching season.

PAYNE: Even so, the law doesn't entirely eliminate light. There's also distant light from nearby towns and a busy seaport. Zailo has seen baby sea turtles get thrown off. Sometimes they waddle into the woods instead of the ocean and become prey. And so he's brought in Chris Hintz for some help.

CHRIS HINTZ: All right. We're going to take the pictures. Yup, there he goes.

PAYNE: On this dark, cloudy night, the marine science professor from Savannah State University is setting up a digital camera on the beach.

HINTZ: We try to keep it close to the ground, be as close to what a turtle can see.

PAYNE: Instinctively, turtles go for the brightest horizon, which is usually over the ocean unless there's artificial light. Hintz wants to construct a turtle's-eye view of the beach. His sophisticated camera swivels around remotely and takes long exposure shots from known nesting spots. Grad student Emma Patterson is helping him. She says the goal is to pinpoint the precise locations of light pollution.

EMMA PATTERSON: 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. And so now it's finally become, I guess, important enough.

PAYNE: A few days later, I meet Hintz back in his office at Savannah State, where the real magic happens.

HINTZ: It takes about - I don't know - 30 seconds, 45 seconds for it to process. There's 130 million pixels across all those images.

PAYNE: A computer program he and his team coded themselves is turning the pictures into turtle vision. It's based on prior research into how turtles see the world. Finally, the computer spits out a panoramic image. It's dominated by shades of blue and punctuated by splotches of bright white from light pollution. It's like putting on a pair of night vision goggles if those goggles were made by Smurfs.

HINTZ: Turtles can see blue so much better than we can. We just can't see it, so even if it's there, we just don't notice that it's there.

PAYNE: Hintz and his team have taken these kinds of photos along several of Georgia's barrier islands.

HINTZ: Many of the conservation individuals go out there, and they see turtles getting misoriented. But they don't have hard numbers. 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.

PAYNE: Hintz hopes to make this turtle vision data widely available to conservationists. This could help them adjust habitats and nests in order to shield hatchlings from the worst of the light pollution. For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Payne in Savannah, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE FLEETWOOD MAC'S "ALBATROSS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Benjamin Payne