Race to Save a Green Giant

In Costa Rica, two generations of an American family have battled the odds to protect the imperiled green sea turtle

  • Chris Wille
  • Oct 01, 1999
With just a lemon wedge of Caribbean moon to guide them, the tagging team members move down the darkened Costa Rican beach. It's past 11 already, and they hope to find another turtle before their relief crew meets them at midnight. They come to a furrow in the sand faintly highlighted by spindrift luminescence. It looks as if an off-road vehicle had emerged from the surf and headed straight for the scrim of scrub brush above the high-tide line.

The team leader signals the others, then sneaks along the turtle track by herself. At her whispered "okay" the team converges on the quarry, a 500-pound green sea turtle deep in an egg-laying trance. Turtles are skittish on land, where the wink of a flashlight can send them tractoring back into the waves. But once they begin laying eggs, nothing can deter them.

The three volunteers—an Australian turtle biologist, a biochemist from Philadelphia and a grandmother from Florida—begin their work, deftly measuring the female, counting eggs and applying an identification tag to a front nipper. The fourth member of the team watches intently, though he has seen the process countless times before. For David Carr, the sight of a sea turtle depositing the seeds of a new generation releases a flood of memories, and it causes him to think ahead to the prospects for that next generation.

Carr is executive director of the Gainesville, Florida-based Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC), which has been battling for more than three decades to save endangered sea turtles in Central America. Today, the CCC is entering a new phase as a power player in the complicated game of Central American ecopolitics.

Conservationists from around the world are working together to protect the environment of Central America, host to some of the most diverse and important habitats on Earth. But the future is closing in fast. Overpopulation, underdevelopment and crushing national debts have darkened the outlook for the region's wildlife, including the imperiled green sea turtle. Of the millions that once visited the region's shores, only a few thousand greens are left. Fortunately, Carr and the CCC face this pressing future armed with experience gained from decades past.

Carr was a child when he first came to this beach on Costa Rica's northeastern shore with his brothers to assist an energetic and humorous zoology professor from the University of Florida. The professor, a high-octane combination of Charles Darwin and Will Rogers, wanted to put markers on sea turtles for the first time to learn more about how the little-known creatures live.

The professor was David's father, Archie Carr—scientist, author, raconteur and the sea turtle's tireless champion. From the moment years before when he watched a female hawksbill pull herself ashore in the half-moonlight and begin laying eggs, Archie Carr had been fascinated with sea turtles. He dedicated much of his life to documenting the migratory habits of the seafaring reptiles.

Turtle hunters used to tell of a place where green sea turtles were so thick they laid nests on top of nests. Archie spent years searching for this fabled nesting ground, and in 1950, with the help of Costa Rican friends, he found it. Local people called the beach "Tortuguero."

When David and his brothers arrived seven years later, the professor had just published a book, The Windward Road. They could not have known that the book would make Tortuguero beach—a 22-mile, skinny necktie of sand and jungle—the most famous turtle-nesting site in the world, igniting widespread interest in the huge reptiles that emerge mysteriously from the sea to nest.

"Tortuguero was a virtual paradise then," recalls David Carr. "It was completely isolated. Only a few boats and the bravest pilots could get in. No telephones. No electricity. Fabulous tarpon fishing. Wildlife everywhere. We were the Robinson Crusoe family."

Over the years, hundreds of volunteer turtle taggers shared the Carrs' spartan quarters in the Green Turtle Research Station. The beach was also a magnet for naturalists. In 1970, Costa Rica's government declared the beach and portions of the rain forest Tortuguero National Park.

Universally regarded as the dean of sea turtle biology, Archie Carr drew both scientists and citizens into the fight to save the creatures. His award-winning prose (he wrote 11 books and more than 120 scientific articles) brought international attention to the plight of sea turtles.

With wide-ranging knowledge and wit, Carr could captivate any audience, whether of fishermen or university professors. "Archie was a naturalist with superb abilities," remembers Peter Pritchard, a Florida Audubon Society turtle biologist who studied under Carr in the 1960s. "Walking through any habitat, he could point out things that you would never see on your own and explain them fully."

Archie died in 1987, but by then he could see the changes in store for Tortuguero. Today, there are still no roads to the village, but canals link the loopy river that embroiders the rain forest; boats travel this inland waterway from the port city of Limón 50 miles to the south. The village has grown and now includes a honky-tonk and guest house. Linemen brought electricity a few years back, and now there's even a telephone.

The biggest change has been the arrival of tourists. "Jungle lodges" have sprung up along the glossy black rivers that cut Tortuguero beach off from the mainland. Some locals calculate that the number of tourists has tripled in five years and now surpasses 15,000 annually. Archie Carr wrote that "one has to accept the new times and make the best of the influx of outsiders." The CCC now sees tourism as a potential ally, as it gives Costa Rica an incentive to protect the turtle beaches.

Tourists come to fish tarpon; to see monkeys, sloths and macaws; to immerse themselves in dark, rich rain forest. But mostly they come from June through September with hopes of seeing a "tortuga" lumber ashore with maternal urges.

At night, in a ritual the species has performed for millions of years, the female—safe, buoyant and graceful in the water—gives herself over to the gravity and dangers of land. Like a dog looking for just the right spot to lie down, she sniffs and scratches the sand until sensory inputs and instinct agree on a location. "From that point on," Archie Carr wrote, "she seems to sink gradually into a behavioral groove in which finally she becomes oblivious to all distraction."

Using her flippers, the beast digs a pit as large as herself, emitting massive sighs that echo all the way back to the Cretaceous. Then, using a hind flipper like a spoon, she shapes a deep, flask-like cavern, into which she deposits 100 or more ping-pong ball-sized eggs. After packing sand over her buried treasure, she retreats to the welcoming sea.

By 1955, when Archie Carr began his studies at Tortuguero, few females were making it back into the waves. Many were caught by veladores, turtle hunters who patrolled the beach at night. The veladores would turn the turtles on their backs, leaving them to flop helplessly until a boat from Limón came to buy them.

The green sea turtle has a fatal flaw: It is uncommonly good to eat. Every part is delicious, from stewed fin and turtle steaks to the gourmet's cherished turtle soup and raw eggs washed down with beer.

When Columbus blew into the Caribbean, there were perhaps 50 million green sea turtles in the area. According to legend, a captain could navigate to the greatest turtle rookery of all—the Cayman Islands—by following the herds of swimming turtles. At that time, the creatures were abundant in the world's seven seas. Sailors and residents of growing Caribbean villages believed that the turtle's numbers were infinite. One by one, breeding colonies were wiped out. Island beaches once stitched with the tracks of nesting greens were left barren. Eventually, only one great rookery was left in the Caribbean: Tortuguero.

Karen Bjorndal, director of the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida, calls Tortuguero "the most important green sea turtle rookery remaining in the Western Hemisphere." About 20,000 greens nest at Tortuguero each year, along with a few hawksbill turtles and giant leatherbacks.

Five major groups of marine turtles ply the world's seas, all of them endangered. Green sea turtles are still found worldwide, but in nothing like their previous numbers. Many biologists credit Archie Carr with saving the Tortuguero population from certain extinction, which he did mostly through his popular books. A New York publisher, Joshua B. Powers, was so impressed with The Windward Road that he sent copies to 20 influential friends. They, in turn, were moved to join him in forming the Brotherhood of the Green Turtle in 1959, with the aim of "restoring green turtles to their native waters, and insuring to Winston Churchill his nightly cup of turtle soup." The brotherhood grew and eventually changed its name to the less whimsical Caribbean Conservation Corporation.

A nonprofit organization dependent on grants and donations, the CCC has a small staff in Gainesville and another in Costa Rica. The famous Green Turtle Research Station at Tortuguero still houses volunteer turtle taggers, and the program has continued uninterrupted for 36 years. The CCC recently received a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to help the villagers and turtles of Tortuguero cope with, and even benefit from, the surge of tourism.

The group has embarked, David Carr says, on a whole new era of environmental education, research, conservation and land acquisition. One of CCC's partners in expanding Tortuguero National Park is another American-based conservation group, Wildlife Conservation International. David Carr is often seen plotting with WCI's regional coordinator, who happens to be his brother, Archie Carr III.

Besides fueling the growth of CCC, the senior Archie Carr's proselytizing also prompted a strong, pro-turtle response from the Costa Rican government, which has imposed tight restrictions on turtle-taking. This, along with environmental education, has substantially reduced turtling on Costa Rica's Caribbean shore.

When Archie Carr began his studies at Tortuguero, biologists knew very little about sea turtles. Captains of turtle boats claimed the creatures migrated, but no scientist could verify it. This intrigued Archie Cart; who developed a way to tag the seafaring reptiles. The tags offered a $5 reward. Before long, turtle fishermen from around the Caribbean were returning tags with the requested information. Over the years, more than 50,000 nesting females have been tagged.

Tagging has revealed that the turtles can cover long distances in a short time, often swimming nearly 20 miles a day. One female tagged at Tortuguero was recovered nine days later in Colon, Panama, 250 miles to the south. Another determined turtle made the 525-mile swim to Colombia in a single month.

Tortuguero tag teams also discovered marked females nesting in the exact same spot on the beach where they were tagged years before. No one knows how the creatures accomplish this pinpoint navigation.

The tagging studies and other research at Tortuguero have unveiled many of the sea turtle's secrets. Still, what is known about the creature is far outweighed by the unknown. For instance, biologists suspect that sea turtles return to their natal beach to breed and nest; no turtle marked on Tortuguero Beach has ever been found nesting anywhere else. But they can't be certain until someone devises a way to mark a z.1 poker chip-sized hatchling so it can be identified when it returns to nest 30 to 50 years later weighing as much as 400 pounds.

As Karen Bjorndal points out, 99 percent of sea turtle research has been done on the nesting beaches, where the females spend less than 1 percent of their lives (males never return to land after hatching). She and other researchers are now trying to track turtles using satellite-assisted radio-telemetry, DNA "fingerprinting" and other space-age techniques.

"The turtles have had 100 million years to wrap themselves in mysteries," says David Carr. "We've only had a few decades to uncover them."

When he can find a break in the blur of demands and activities that press upon an international conservationist, Carr likes to walk Tortuguero beach at night, especially when the turtles are coming ashore. The sight of a nesting sea turtle, he says, gives him the determination to see to it that this animal, which has visited Tortuguero since the age of the dinosaurs, survives into the next millennium.

Chris Wille works in Costa Rica as co-director of the Tropical Conservation Newsbureau, a project of the Rainforest Alliance.

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