PANAMA CITY— Mary Alice Monroe describes herself as a “turtle lady” with definite opinions on the subject of protecting sea turtles.
“It’s a very delicate balance to bring awareness of an issue in a novel without proselytizing,” she said, adding that her first job is to entertain. However, “increased population and increased lighting problems” are costing innumerable sea turtle hatchlings their lives — and endangering the species, she said.
The New York Times best-selling author of “The Butterfly’s Daughter” and “Beach House Memories” has been a member of the Isle of Palms Turtle Team in South Carolina since 1999. She serves on the board of the South Carolina Aquarium, the Leatherback Trust and Charleston Volunteers for Literacy.
Monroe comes from a family of conservationists, she said. Her experiences watching over sea turtle nests inspired her 2002 novel, “The Beach House.”
“People who read the story are learning through the eyes of the characters, characters who had passion and emotion,” she said. “A lot of turtle teams called ‘The Beach House’ the training manual. They saw a wave of new volunteers” motivated to get involved after reading the novel.
Monroe will be one of the featured authors at the 14th annual Books Alive festival of reading and writing sponsored by the Bay County Public Library. The event will be 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 2 in the Holley Academic Center at Florida State University Panama City. All panels and talks are free and open to the public.
Turtle-friendly lighting ordinances, like the one scheduled to take effect in Panama City Beach on May 1, are important to the continued health of the species, Monroe said.
“Condominiums are a true problem because of the height,” she said. “We’re also finding the ambient light of a city, the distant glow, is almost impossible to fight.”
A quick primer: Sea turtles crawl onto dunes and dig holes to lay dozens of eggs, then cover the hole and try to camouflage it from predators before returning to the sea. The female never returns to check on the eggs (an act Monroe has used in her novels to parallel a human parent’s abandonment of a child).
When the eggs hatch, often in what is called “a boil” of emerging hatchlings, the tiny turtles head toward the brightest light source. In nature, that would be ambient light from the ocean. But not any more.
In 2012, the local Turtle Watch recorded 39 loggerhead nests and one leatherback nest successfully hatched. In a typical year, more than half of the hatchlings that emerge on Panama City Beach are affected by artificial light, Turtle Watch Director Kennard Watson told The News Herald recently.
“I expect we’ll see improvements on the beach this summer as the ordinance goes into effect,” he said, referring to a new regulation, part of a federal mandate, which requires all beachfront property owners to use turtle-friendly lighting to ensure hatchlings travel toward the gulf, rather than away from it.
“The bright, artificial lights from houses, streetlights and flashlights confuse them and lead them in the wrong direction away from the sea,” Monroe wrote in an article for “Azalea” magazine last summer. “When this occurs, the hatchlings will surely die from being run over by cars, eaten by predators, or dehydration.”
Nesting and hatching season runs from May to October in Florida, which attracts the greatest number of sea turtles, estimated at 50,000 a season, Monroe said. These are primarily loggerheads and leatherbacks, though Panama City Beach had its first-ever recorded leatherback hatching only last year.
Monroe’s group has taken to keeping nightly watches on turtle nests and guiding hatchlings to the water by placing their own bright light sources by the surf.
“It works,” she said. “It would be hard to do if we have a thousand nests. We had about 60 last year.”
One of Monroe’s recent novels focused on Monarch butterflies, and her next novel kicks off a trilogy about dolphins — both of which are familiar visitors to Panama City and the beaches. She spends years with hands-on and academic research before writing, and her research leads her to believe that humans are turning dolphins into a “bunch of beggars” by feeding and swimming with them in the wild.
“I don’t pretend to answer the debate” about the proper interaction between humans and dolphins, she said, “but I aim to increase awareness.”
Want To Go?
- What: 14th annual festival of reading and writing, featuring more than 18 nationally-known authors and 25 local and regional authors. Keynote speaker is Judith Bense, president of the University of West Florida.
- When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 2
- Where: Holley Academic Center, Florida State University Panama City, 4750 Collegiate Drive, Panama City
- Cost: All sessions are free and open to the public; keynote luncheon is $20 per person; gala is $75 per person
- Web: BooksAlive.net