ST. PETE BEACH — The beach is getting darker at night in response to a city lighting ordinance aimed at helping more baby turtles reach the sea.
More residents are turning out their nighttime lights or shielding them away from the beach. That effort increases the chances of survival for baby turtles who often are disoriented by light blight along the shoreline.
"The lights do seem, in certain areas of the beach, a little bit darker," said Bruno Faulkenstein, owner of the Hurricane Restaurant who has been helping baby turtles return to the sea for about 30 years. "The lighting has improved, but there's always room for improvement."
It has been almost two years since the city of St. Pete Beach adopted lighting restrictions aimed at helping sea turtles. The ordinance prohibits most lights from being visible on the beach or from shining in the area beyond the dunes. It also prohibits bonfires, driving on the beach or shining a flashlight onto a turtle nest.
But some businesses are struggling to meet the new standards. The iconic pink Don CeSar Beach Resort has already installed shields on the lights in the parking lot. But engineers are having trouble finding shielded pool lighting fixtures that also provide enough light for safety.
"We're trying to find something that satisfies both the city's requirements and something that meets the safety requirements of the guests," said hotel marketing director Cindy Lew.
The restrictions on existing lighting took effect last July. But Lew said the city has given the hotel another six months to update the pool lights.
Artificial light can be quite perplexing to baby sea turtles.
When they crawl out of their nests, the turtles instinctively follow moonlight reflecting off the water to lead them out to sea. But man-made lights along beaches can look an awful lot like the moon. So the hatchlings get confused.
The tiny turtles end up spending much-needed energy following the "bogus light," and they simply don't have the strength to make it out to sea. When they don't make it to the ocean, the turtles often die from dehydration when the sun rises the next morning.
Curbing artificial light is most important during turtle nesting season, which lasts from May 1 through Oct. 31.
To meet the new lighting codes, some businesses add shields to their lamps to direct the light away from the beach. The city paints a black stripe on some of its street lamps. Others use yellow bulbs, or bug lights, which don't confuse the baby turtles.
Faulkenstein pointed out that most of the beach-facing end of Tradewinds Resort is lit up each night. But since the resort owners use bug lights, the turtles aren't harmed.
Even though he doesn't police lighting violations, Faulkenstein said he'd be more than happy to work with businesses to make beachfront lighting safe for the turtles.
"If the whole back of Tradewinds can handle it, there's no reason the Don can't as well," he said.
City officials usually just tell a business when its beach lighting isn't up to code. Operations manager Phil Christman says most businesses are sensitive to their impact on sea turtles.
Faulkenstein also said he's happy with the cooperation from beachfront business owners. He noted the Undertow beach bar, which for years had bright lights shining on the beach at night so people could play volleyball.
"Now, every time I go onto the beach, I don't see any lights," he said.