Archie Carr: The Refuge, The Conservation Biologist, The Really Good Writer

Most beach goers around here know of Archie Carr from the wildlife refuge with the same name. The Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge is a checkerboard of publicly owned land on the barrier island along a 20-mile stretch from Melbourne Beach to northern Indian River County. It has some of the prettiest and least-crowded public beaches on Florida’s east coast.

Many know Archie Carr as the man who saved the sea turtles. The Wildlife Refuge was created shortly after Carr’s death in 1987 to protect the most important sea turtle nesting beach in the United States. Almost all the old rookeries had been wiped out years before Carr started focusing on sea turtles, and the few large nesting sites that remained were in grave danger of disappearing too. Carr knew the only way to prevent the sad decimation of sea turtle populations was to allow them to breed.

Once a year female turtles trudge slowly up the beach to dig a hole and lay their eggs. During the “crawl,” when hundreds or thousands of sea turtles return to their nesting beaches, these females are easy prey. Turtle hunters patrolled beaches on summer nights during nesting season. When they spotted a turtle, they flipped it on its back and dragged it above the high tide line to be collected later. A sea turtle on its back, out of the water, can do nothing but wait. Commercial turtlers took huge numbers of sea turtles from breeding beaches, for awhile. In 1886, Charles Peake caught 2,500 green turtles around Sebastian in what is now part of the Archie Carr Refuge. In 1895 his catch dwindled to 60.

What I did not know until I opened a copy of Carr’s The Windward Road (1956) is that this fine conservation biologist was also a terrific writer. You might think a book about the demise of sea turtles would make for dreary reading, but it doesn’t. Carr was an overgrown boy on a wild Caribbean adventure with a sling shot in his hand and a sack full of frogs and lizards over his shoulder. “Adventure,” Carr writes, “is just a state of mind, and a very pleasant one, and no harm to anybody, and a great asset if you use it right.” The Windward Road made me want to stand in waste-deep water in the middle of the night in hopes of hearing the song of the paradox frog (“I have always liked frogs…I like the looks of frogs, and their outlook, and especially the way they get together in wet places on warm nights and sing about sex”). It made me want to help chase newly hatched baby iguanas, which were “wonderfully bad tempered and quick.” It made me want to meet the locals, drink the beer and escape the heat and mosquitos on the windward road. At the end of the book, I felt ready to join Carr on his adventure, and incredibly sad that, the adventure having passed fifty years ago, and Carr having died thirty years ago, that I could not.

Next on my reading list is Carr’s So Excellent a Fishe (1967). This summer I’ll be sitting in the shade of an umbrella at one of the quiet beaches in Carr’s Refuge with sea turtle tracks nearby. I will read and laugh and learn about Carr’s adventures with these wild, prehistoric reptiles and how he pieced together the information needed to give them another chance at survival.

Archie Carr beaches are BlueTube beaches, so of course I will take a break from reading to grab a bag from the BlueTube at the dune crossover, pick up plastic trash and throw it away. Sea turtles can lay their eggs in peace thanks to Archie Carr. They used to be threatened by hunters, now they are threatened by the plastic they eat and become entangled in. It is up to us to make sure plastic on the beach and in the ocean doesn’t jeapordize their remarkable comeback.