Dr Archie Carr's 1956 Turtle Publication

Originally published in 1956, The Windward Road documents Dr. Archie Carr’s travels through the Caribbean in search of sea turtles. The Professor of Zoology at the University of Florida who would come to be known as the leading expert on sea turtle biology started off in search of the elusive Kemp’s ridley turtle (Lepidochelys kempii). The mysterious specimen with no known natural history information led him from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology through to the beaches in Florida, before flying Costa Rica and beyond.

Throughout his travels, he engages with the locals, documenting second-hand stories and first-hand accounts of various sea turtle behaviours and interactions. A biologist through and through, Carr pays equal attention to the other wildlife of the tropics, from iguanas to sloths to a terrifying encounter with a jaguar. Articulately written, the vivid descriptions of his adventures tells captivating stories one after while iterating the over-exploited state of sea turtles, and imparting on the reader a sense of urgency to conserve the beasts.

The book opens with Carr watching as a colleague harpoons a Kemp’s ridley. This method of capture for studying the turtle differs greatly from the tangle-net method we used in Culebra. Embedding a steel pole in the turtle’s carapace to haul it in stood out as rather violent and obviously adapted from fishing practices. I would expect someone so passionate about sea turtles like Carr to object to such methods. Along with the environmental impacts of flying fuel-guzzling planes for aerial surveys that is susceptible to weather, observer-fatigue, and tightening budgets, some of his methods though necessary at the time, seem outmoded now.

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Procedures of tagging turtles seem to remain much the same, although current materials are likely more durable and information standardized compared to the tag he affixed onto the green turtle lost under the house.

However, whether past or present, the capture and tagging methods both seem highly invasive techniques. Although only 12 of 175 turtles’ nesting behaviour were disrupted when tagged during nesting (Broderick and Godley 1999), increased stressed hormones were observed in Kemp’s ridleys during handling (Gregory and Schmid 2001). Given the unknown effects of the brightly-coloured plastic tags on elevating predation risk of sea turtles, and the potential drag in movement caused by fouling of tags, and specialized training needed to insert PIT tags, I feel that more non-invasive methods of identification can be explored and new monitoring techniques applied.

Examples include using unmanned drones for wide surveys, and skin pattern recognition software that has been used to identify individuals from photos without the need for physical tagging (Pimm et al. 2015). While the necessity of old methods must be acknowledged, with improving technology and diminishing costs, I feel that new methods should be tried especially when the stakes are the survival of creatures as endangered as sea turtles.

Despite being 60 years since its original publication, the relevance of the book remains undeniable. In eloquent prose, he captures the beauty of the untouched beaches in Florida, a state he himself admits is unlikely to persist. True enough, vacationers flock to down in greater numbers than ever now. However, as with all human inhabitancy comes trash. In Tortuguero, he notes the “great deal of jetsam all along” the beach where he later finds green turtles nesting. Particularly now, research has shown evidence of the detrimental impacts of plastics on sea turtles, including ingestion, entanglement, alteration of nesting habitats, and wider ecosystem impacts of reduced productivity and trophic interactions resulting from pollution (Nelms et al. 2015).

Similarly, we observed floating pieces of plastics while snorkelling with foraging turtles at Tamarindo Bay, tying in with the need for education campaigns and beach clean-ups by non-governmental organisations such as the St. Croix Environmental Association, and proper waste disposal management as mentioned by Ricardo. Conservation cannot be holistically attained by focusing solely on the animal’s biology and discounting the human element. From trash to human use of beaches to coastal developments destroying sea turtle habitat, Carr had to juggle many factors in his strive to protect sea turtles. Yet despite the seeming inevitability of human expansion, one man’s tireless lead can result in impressive changes, as seen by the successful establishment of Tortugeuro National Park in Costa Rica.

Additionally, his efforts can inspire others to do more, as can be seen by the establishment of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. These areas limit all human disturbance including light pollution, to protect important nesting grounds.

Most prominently of human interactions is the harvesting of sea turtles for food and decorative material by locals. It is a complex topic, where Carr himself has eaten turtle, relied on locals who harvest the eggs, and rides with captains that stockpile turtle shells. To balance the cultural significance and contribution to the local economy these activities have, despite the fact that the statues of “the green turtle is in a bad way” presents a moral dilemma. While I appreciate his candour in describing the people and practices with no bias, reconciling the disconnect between his actions such as cracking turtle eggs and his appeal to protect them seems to send rather mixed messages to the audience, excusing himself of the same standards the strong restrictions of the Endangered Species Act and CITES listing now holds others to.

Such an issue persists to this day, as Carlos mentions how his colleagues still view turtles as a source of food – a view that is understandable given the longstanding cultural practices. Personally, I have no qualms with sustainable harvest of sea turtles as a food source, although given the limits of knowledge, setting the maximum sustainable yield threshold is a difficult task in itself. However, it seems that international pressure around the charismatic turtle has resulted in indiscriminate pressure against small communities without recognising the human factor. As much as conservation is an interdisciplinary topic, the lack of social scientists in all the programs we have visited still stands out to me as a gaping hole in the ability to institute effective management policies.

Personal practices aside, being privy to his theories on how and where turtles move gives readers a glimpse into his genius. Sure enough, many of his predictions have been proved, and many more been tested. Particularly, the “recording gyrocompass” he proposed that allows sea turtles to navigate currents and recognise landmarks matches discovery of sea turtles ability to perceive magnetic fields and skylight polarization to home back to their natal beach (Lohmann et al. 2004).

Yet as the ‘lost years’ of leatherbacks still remains unknown, the unending need for further research continues, built upon his legacy. Watching the leatherbacks nest was like watching a prehistoric dinosaurs, and knowing that they have kept their evolutionarily-perfected secrets for years, I doubt that the answer will surface just yet. I particularly enjoyed that he tapped on local knowledge for scientific endeavours. Be it in Florida, Costa Rica, or the Cayman Islands, he inquires with fisherman, pilots, and locals that harvest eggs, often with fruitful outcomes. The ethnographic technique allows integration of local ecological knowledge with biological approaches while engaging the community to the benefit of all (Ames 2007).

However, his questionably racist references to the local people and culture seems primitive in light of today’s cultural sensitivities. Some argue that the fact that he interacted with locals at all defied existing scientific imperialism (Evans 2010), yet it seems insufficient to me to play off his derogatory remarks as the prevailing mentality of a previous generation. As much as his indefatigable efforts to promote sea turtle conservation has him praised to sainthood, I feel that a true representation of his character must also be acknowledged.

Carr must be given due credit for the accessibility of his writing. The clarity of his style is a quality I highly envy and aspire to, especially with science communication being more important than ever for the education of the public nowadays. However, as the book ends, the light-hearted tone of earlier chapters gets a sharp turn as he appeals to the public’s sense of urgency in saving the sea turtles and briefly describes what will escalate to a U.S. Navy- backed operation to distribute hatchlings to recover the green turtle population in the Caribbean. As a memoire, it is easy to follow with enjoyable tangents on other wildlife that captures the beauty of tropics beyond just sea turtles.

The book does not bog the reader down with excessively detailed scientific theories of turtle migration, but provides digestible, well- worded accounts of his thought processes. Ultimately, with our own experience monitoring sea turtles, I very much identify with his wonder but also frustrations throughout his journey, and someday hope to emulate his tenacity and furthering conservation causes.

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Dr Archie Carr's 1956 Turtle Publication. (2022, Dec 13). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/a-review-of-dr-archie-carr-1956-zoology-publication-about-turtles-the-windward-road/

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