By Steve Plunkett

    State wildlife officials are calling cellphones the “new 21st century hazard” to nesting sea turtles and reminding people not to take photos with their phones. Someone snapping a flash photo with the handy device could frighten or disorient a mother turtle and send her back to the ocean without laying eggs.
    Meghan Koperski, an environmental specialist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said wildlife officers used to worry about people carrying a camera, flashlight or fishing lantern when looking for sea turtles. Smartphones changed that.
    “All these things are rolled into one, in something simple that fits in your pocket,” Koperski said.
    Fish and Wildlife staff and law enforcement officers encountered people on the beach with cellphones during nesting season last year, and the commission also received email complaints. But more troubling was the growing number of pictures posted on Instagram, Facebook and other social media sites, Koperski said. “The whole point of having the experience is not to document it, it’s to experience it,” she said.
    The news media have also been asked not to take photos, said Dr. Kirt Rusenko, who manages Boca Raton’s sea turtle conservation and research program at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. The FWC wants people who simply must have a photo to use one the agency already has online, at www.flickr.com/photos/myfwcmedia.  
    Even a smartphone’s lighted screen could disrupt egg-laying and, later on in the season, disorient hatchlings trying to find the ocean.
“Any sort of interruption of that process could be considered a violation of the Endangered Species Act,” Koperski said.
    Transient light sources may also violate local ordinances, she said. In 1986 Boca Raton became one of the first municipalities to enact a lighting ordinance to protect turtles.   
    People who must have a light should use a red LED flashlight, the FWC says. Such lights give off a very narrow portion of the visible light spectrum and are less intrusive to nesting turtles and hatchlings.
    Nesting season started March 1 and runs through Oct. 31. As of Memorial Day weekend, Boca Raton had recorded 11 leatherback turtle nests and 170 loggerhead nests.
    Gumbo Limbo has spots available for its turtle walk and hatchling release program. See www.gumbolimbo.org/Walk-Release.

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