How it all began:
Fifty years ago, we knew next to nothing about sea turtles. If you study sea turtles today, you will notice one name popping up again and again: Dr. Archie Carr. Dr. Carr set up the first systematic turtle research program, which still operates today. He is directly responsible for saving the Caribbean green turtle population from extinction. Most of our knowledge of sea turtles stems from his research. Dr. Carr’s life was as interesting as the turtles he loved.
Archie was the son of a Presbyterian minister and spent his early years traveling throughout the south with his father. His father was a strict disciplinarian who insisted on a proper education. Fascinated by adventure fiction, Archie’s character was shaped by his heroes, the characters of Kipling, Hemingway, and Twain. With a literary bent, Archie felt drawn to write as well.
He had once read that one of his favorite authors had said that to write one had first to live hard. So Archie took it upon himself to live hard, and live hard he did. For a time, he worked the river boats of the Mississippi following in Mark Twain’s footsteps. He wound up working the docks of Savannah. One day while loading bales of cotton, one of the large needles used to sew up the bales pierced his forearm. With no penicillin, the doctors chose to remove his bone and replace it with a metal bar.
With his days of hard living at an end, Archie chose to attend college at the University of Florida, where he graduated with a double major: biology and English. Taxonomy was his specialty, and in those days, that meant going out, finding new species, and naming them. He met his wife, Marjorie, while on a trip into the field. She was studying the sex life of the St. Johns River large mouth bass at the time.
They married, and soon word of Dr. Carr’s research reached the ears of the Ivy League. Harvard asked if he had ever heard of a fellow named Popenoe. (Popenoe’s research lead to the introduction of the avocado to the United States.) If Archie would help “Pop,” Harvard would pay for him to live and do research in Honduras. The fruit companies would front the money for the project. And so Archie packed up and moved off to Honduras. He describes these as the best years of his life. He was teaching biology to bright young students in Honduras’ Zamarano School of Agriculture. He had all the time in the world to travel into the cloud forests looking for new species. His wife studied her birds. His children were born. And, the fruit companies indirectly paid for it through Harvard.
In order to go deeper into the jungles, Archie hired himself out to chicleros. (Chicleros were the collectors of chicle, from which chewing gum is made. Many chicleros were less than reputable.) So there Archie was. White American university professor, Ph.D.–gallivanting around the jungle acting as huntsman and cook for the toughest bandits in all Honduras. Life was good…until one fateful day.
October 10, 1947, Archie had taken a trip on horseback to the Pacific coast in search of new species. And there for the first time in his log, he records seeing a nesting sea turtle, “…eggs came out every 4-10 seconds in bunches of 2, 3, or 4 [few times], usually 2-3. Turtles eyes closed and plastered with tears and sand. This must be of some function.” The preliminary sketches and descriptions tickled his imagination and began a fascination with turtles that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
A good friend of his, Guillermo Cruz, told him that if he were really interested in sea turtles, then he needed to go to Costa Rica to Tortuguero. After a cursory trip in 1955, Archie and his family made the trip on horseback from Honduras to Tortuguero in Costa Rica. The leader of the expedition was none other than Pepe Figueres, the leader of Costa Rica’s revolution less than ten years earlier.
And so, Dr. Archie Carr began what has become today the longest lived turtle research project in the world–Tortuguero. And still today, the Carr family watches over the goings on in Tortuguero.
This series is dedicated in loving memory to Dr. Archie Carr. 1907 – 1987.