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The Prince of Sea Turtles

Remembering Archie Carr, the internationally renowned conservationist whose name and success are part of the local landscape

Dr. Carr attaches an early radio tracking device on a green sea turtle in Tortuguero.

Dr. Carr attaches an early radio tracking device on a green sea turtle in Tortuguero.

It was nearly 60 years ago, but the memories come flooding back.

Chuck Carr was a child when he first traveled 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 a 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,” remembers Chuck, who is now 71 and retired from his 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.