11/05/1990 at 01:00 AM EST
If Florida's sea turtles ever became politically organized, one of the first lobbying groups they might form would be MATE (Mothers Against Thomas Edison). The Wizard of Menlo Park may be a hero to humans, but one of his inventions—the light bulb—wreaks havoc on newborn turtles. That's because turtle hatchlings, which emerge at night from shoreside nests, orient themselves according to the brightest horizon. With the urbanization of America's coastlines, more and more turtles are seeing the wrong light and heading toward civilization—and perishing from dehydration or lopsided encounters with Buicks.
John Fletemeyer wants to help young turtles follow the right path to adulthood. An anthropology professor at Florida International University in Miami, he works part-time for the city of Del Ray Beach, monitoring endangered sea turtle nests along three miles of shoreline.
"When the turtles hatch," says Fletemeyer, 31, "they seek the brightest horizon. Street lights, other outdoor lights, perhaps even the reflected glow from cities might be enough to disorient them." Del Ray's turtle-protection program follows two simple commandments: Thou shalt not poach, and Let there be dark.
Fletemeyer first finds the nests by following the mother turtles' flipper marks then posts signs to warn off poachers. If the nests are on the heavily used downtown area of the beach, he relocates the eggs to a quieter stretch behind the town's condominiums and private homes, where all outdoor lights must be turned off during hatching season.
Violators will be prosecuted, or at least pestered, since Fletemeyer can call on the law to help. Spotting a light behind a hedge, he makes a mental note. "I've been seeing that for a couple of days," he says. "I'll notify the cops, and they'll tell them to turn it out." When that happens, some sea turtles may have a brighter future.