Sun, sand and sex-change turtles
Monday 17 April 1995
The erosion of beaches at such tourist favourites as Miami and Fort Lauderdale has made sand almost as precious as gold dust.
Army sappers were deployed last year to dredge offshore sandbars, but were forced to stop because there is virtually no reachable ocean sand left and beach residents and biologists said dredging could damage coral reefs and kill off endangered sea turtles.
Hence the attraction of the Bahamas' fine white sand, known as "aragonite". But biologists say that this sort of sand could kill off female turtles and turn the Florida coastline into an all-male club for turtles.
The temperature of the sand affects the sex of newborn sea turtles and, according to experts, the bright white sand from the Bahamas deflects more sunshine, stays cooler and might, therefore, lead to only male hatchlings.
Mother turtles also have an unfortunate affection for the bright lights. As soon as they have dumped their eggs, they tend to head for the brightest object around. Since they lay their eggs at night, that used to be moonlight dancing on the Atlantic waves. Now, they head for the neon lights of beachfront hotels and bars.
The problem is the biologists and environmentalists cannot have it both ways. Like holiday-makers, turtles need sand. At the present rate of erosion - the beach is down to a few metres wide in some tourist areas - somebody's going to have to get sand from somewhere.
The US Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, then came up with a compromise: Bahamanian sand would be tested on two small beach areas.
Visiting Miami at the weekend, he said that the Fish and Wildlife Service, which falls within his portfolio, would research the turtles' reaction. "We're out of sand. We desperately need it," he added.
However, the anti-Bahamanian-sand lobby has one more argument. Bahamas sand is mainly limestone, compared to the quartz-based beaches of Florida - and Florida's rainy season could turn limestone sand into cement.
At least that might ensure that plenty of tourists stick to Florida.
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