It was nearly 60 years ago, but the memories come flooding back.
Chuck Carr was a child when he first travelled with his two brothers to the black sand beaches of Tortuguero on Costa Rica's northeast shore to assist an energetic and charismatic zoology professor. A remote tropical village reachable only by boat or light aircraft, Tortuguero boasted the last big colony of sea turtles in the western hemisphere. Green turtles were so thick, they laid nests on top of nests.
The professor was Chuck's father, Dr. Archie Fairly Carr, Jr.-- a pioneering conservation biologist, an inspiring educator, and gifted nature writer.
"We landed on a grass airstrip and our guide Birdie hustled us into a large dugout canoe where we paddled two miles up the river to Tortuguero," remembered Carr, 71, who had a 30-year career with the worldwide Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx Zoo.
"Monkeys chattering, spectacular green and scarlet macaws, huge iguanas dropping out of trees, at 11 years old it was mind blowing. No telephones. No electricity. We were the Robinson Crusoe family. Daddy was there sizing up the village logistically to put a program together to protect these docile creatures from the influx of turtle hunters."
Changing the behavior of poor coastal fishermen wasn't easy. But over time Dr. Carr found success, demonstrating how a live turtle was much more valuable than a dead one. The foremost authority about the biology and the complex life cycle of sea turtles, no one has done more to unravel the mysteries of sea turtles or rescue these beleaguered creatures from the brink of extinction. Dr. Carr's conservation ethic grew from his field work and friendship with the fishermen who supplied him with countless stories that he retold so engagingly.
A lean and sun-weathered man, Dr. Carr's work taught him to see the world through the eyes of other species. He was able to transcend science and reach out to the broader public with his eloquent writings and books on these mysterious sea creatures.
In late May at a site in the Archie Carr Natural Wildlife Refuge on A1A there was a select gathering of 50 prominent biologists, ecologists, state wildlife staff, graduate students and special guests who came to pay homage to Dr. Carr. It was thirty years ago to the day that the internationally renowned zoologist passed away. In a tip of the cap, local wildlife showed up, too. An hour before the event a pair of green turtles were spotted mating just 20 yards out in the Atlantic. A squadron of pelicans glided over the crowd as well as an osprey with a panicky mullet dangling from its claws.
Several in attendance actually worked with Dr. Carr, while others were general sea turtle enthusiasts, from three generations who have since carried on his vital work of studying and protecting sea turtles. In the late 1970s Anne Meylan was one of three young female graduates students who studied under Dr. Carr. They were dubbed "Archie's Angels." A leading sea turtle conservationist for the decades, Meylan vividly recalls turtle harpooners arriving in the wee dawn hours to take one of the turtles they had tagged and were monitoring on Tortuguero. She ran back to their cabin, yelling for help.
"Marjorie roused Dr. Carr and he's standing on the front porch dressed in his pajamas when he fires his feeble little pistol in the air to warn off the poachers," Meylan said. "It really had no effect, but it was a perfect snapshot showing Dr. Carr's steadfast devotion to sea turtle conservation."
A month before his death from stomach cancer in 1987, Dr. Carr was asked in an interview why he cared so much for turtles. He offered a simple response. "I just like the look on their faces. There is an old, wise, sort of durable aboriginal look about turtles that fascinates people."
Over the past decade sea turtle protective measures that Dr. Carr initiated in our region have produced one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time. His namesake wildlife refuge is the epicenter. Stretching for 21.5 miles from Melbourne Beach to Wabasso Beach just north of Vero Beach on A1A, the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is recognized as the most significant area for loggerhead turtle nesting in the world as well as home to the most important colony of green turtles in North America. Leatherbacks are nesting there in significant numbers, too.
University of Central Florida biologist and professor Dr. Llewellyn "Doc" Ehrhart and his dedicated team of graduate students provided the nesting data that led to establishing the first federal refuge in the United States created specifically for sea turtles in the late 1980s.
"Archie was a hands-on scientist who thoroughly loved the land, the wildlife and the people in the places he traveled," recalled Ehrhart. "A lot of the information he acquired on turtles was from local fishermen in Costa Rica and the Caribbean who knew the turtles best. Archie had a great sense of humor and an infectious wonder at the natural world which he conveyed to others through his books and lectures. As you can see from the turnout, Archie's legacy very much lives on today."
When Ehrhart and his students initially started counting the nests of green sea turtles here in 1982 they numbered just 32. In 2015, there were 12,905 nests, a record that Ehrhart says will be topped this year. In 2016 loggerhead nests numbered 20,411, crushing a record the turtles set at the refuge in 2015. Last year there were 71 leatherback nests and one Kemp's ridley.
David Godfrey was named Executive Director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) in Gainesville in 1997. He dreamed up the idea for a specialty license plate to provide a dedicated funding source to enforce turtle protection in the state. The tag has raised millions and was ranked as the number three top seller with 74,281 plates in 2016. The largest sea turtle organization in the world, the STC trains young biologists to further the work started by Dr. Carr. It is funded by 6,000 dues-paying members, the license plate fees, major donors, and grants from environmental foundations.
“It’s a remarkable recovery story,” says Godfrey. "The increased nesting numbers we are seeing now are the result of joint efforts between conservationists, government officials and residents on the beaches. It's so important to stay committed to the conservation of this species and not give up because sea turtles mature very slowly. The hatchlings born here 30 years ago are now finally reaching adulthood and are coming back to those same beaches in the Archie Carr Refuge.” Born in 1909 in Mobile, Alabama, Carr was the son of a Presbyterian pastor, his mother a piano teacher. As a young boy Archie collected snakes, frogs and turtles developing an intense interest in the natural world. When his father was hired as the local pastor in 1930, the Carr family moved to Umitilla, Fla. Carr arrived at the University of Florida during the Depression to study English with the idea of becoming a teacher. However, it wasn't long until a biology professor convinced Carr to pursue his love of nature. He received his Ph.D. in zoology in 1937 and taught at the Gainesville university for his entire 55-year career.
Students vied with each other to gain admission to Dr. Carr's Community Ecology course that included a number of spirited field trips throughout northern Florida. They listened to Dr. Carr's animated stories that wove together zoology, botany, geology, wildlife, history and cultural anthropology, as he guided the class through the Okefenokee Swamp in canoes. Sometimes he would reach down into murky waters and pluck out a poisonous cottonmouth moccasin snake to wave at his tenderfoot students. A field trip was an experience of a lifetime.
Dr. Carr's rare ability to translate science into literature brought the first international attention to the plight of sea turtles. A man of considerable wit, he wrote 11 books and over 120 scientific articles about sea turtles and their habitats throughout Florida, the Caribbean, and Africa. His most widely acclaimed popular book, "The Windward Road," inspired the formation in 1959 of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, now the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
Six decades ago Dr. Carr envisioned that tourism would offer the villagers a sustainable alternative to hunting the turtles. He met with former Costa Rican president José Figueres Ferrer which led to the creation of Tortuguero National Park in 1975. Today, more than 100,000 visitors come every year to watch the sea turtles nest on its shores.
As the May celebration was winding down Dr. Carr's eldest son Chuck walked across to the deck's railing and cleared a tear from his eye, gazing out upon the Atlantic.
"I do think of him as the 'Prince of Sea Turtles,'" Carr observed. "My father always looked toward the horizon to the needs and opportunities of the next generation of sea turtle researchers. If he could come back and see the staggering numbers of nests that happen here each summer, I'm sure he would be very proud in his humble way of what he started." Talkin' Turtles
Surely, Dr. Carr would be smiling. Under a crescent moon, a loggerhead turtle emerges from the waves, looking every bit a pre-historic creature, four feet long and weighing about 350 pounds. It's turtle nesting time in Vero Beach.
Tour de Turtles
One of the Earth's most ancient creatures, sea turtles have been around for over 110 million years, since the time of the dinosaurs. The females return from thousands of miles away to the same small stretch of beach where they were born. This evening a loggerhead pulls herself along the sand to above the high tide line and digs out a pit with her hind flippers to create an egg chamber. She will deposit 60 to 120 soft-shelled eggs there, glistening white and about the size of a golf or ping-pong ball. When her task is done, she methodically scatters sand to camouflage the site of her nest. The labor intensive process takes more than an hour. Once finished, she lumbers down to the waterline and dives back into the ocean.
Vero Beach resident Heather Stapleton has been involved as a scout and a turtle walk leader for the past 15 years on late night expeditions each June and July.
"The kids love it, but I think adults really get the 'wow' factor and are transfixed being so close to the natural world," observes Stapleton, Educational Director at Vero's Environmental Learning Center.
"With technology today you can see videos, but being there captures the magical experience. The world's largest loggerhead nesting area in the world is right in my backyard. People travel from all over the world to see it. No one leaves disappointed. People light up. For many, it's a life changing experience."
After 55 to 60 days loggerhead hatchlings begin to break out of their eggs. Using the moon as a compass, the tiny hatchlings scamper down the beach running a gauntlet of predators until they reach the relative safety of the ocean surf. Unfortunately, the reality is the estimated rate of hatchlings that reach adulthood is only about one in a thousand.
The Tour de Turtles debuted in 2008 as a promotional event intended to raise awareness of sea turtle hazards, such as boat strikes, plastic debris, light pollution and commercial longline fisheries. Staged on August 1, fourteen sea turtles are released at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort and beaches at Melbourne Beach, Clearwater, Costa Rica, Nevis, Panama and Cuba.
Representing four different species, the three month marathon migration follows the turtles to their foraging grounds. Researchers track the turtles' movements to declare the one that swims the farthest the winner. In 2016 a leatherback named Lady Aurelia was crowned the champion, traveling from her birthplace in Panama to north of Nova Scotia, swimming 3,465 miles to victory.
Through the transmitters atop their shells, STC and University of Central Florida researchers monitor the turtles' travels using the same satellites employed to monitor global weather patterns. The tracking provides critical information on sea turtle migration paths and nesting areas. Each contestant’s progress can be followed closely for years.
Each Tour de Turtles entrant acts as an ambassador about specific turtle threats. One critical hazard is the nets of commercial shrimpers as the air-breathing reptiles will drown if they’re snagged in a net and dragged underwater for more than 20 minutes. In U. S. waters, all shrimp trawls are required to use turtle-excluder devices, similar to trapdoors, that allow netted turtles to escape. Disney's Vero Beach Resort cast members set up a turtle excluder device during its event where kids can run through to learn how it helps save sea turtles.
Disney focuses on the turtle threats of ingested plastic debris and light pollution. Over the years it has helped organize educational initiatives for its guests and local residents, such as sea turtle night walks and their version of the classic “Sea Turtles Dig the Dark” campaign. Rachel Smith is the Conservation Programs Lead, for Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment.
"At the resort drinking straws are made of paper and lights on the property are amber and red and set low to the ground," Smith explains. "We have large seagrape bushes that help keep ambient light off the nesting beaches. The turtle walks and the Tour de Turtles event are magical experiences for kids and adults being so close to the natural world. We've seen repeatedly how they can inspire them to conservation action."
Photos courtesy of Sea Turtle Conservancy and photographer Vince Lamb