National Geographic : 1943 Aug
Capturing Giant Turtles in the Caribbean BY DAVID D. DUNCAN* Wi th Illustrations from Photographsby the Author « IG FELLOWS, aren't they?" I began, speaking to a heavy-set -stranger smoking on the wharf at Key West, Florida. Slowly he removed his pipe. "Chickens," he replied, without taking his eyes from the churning water below. "You think those are fairly sizable turtles down there?" he chuckled. I admitted I did. "Well, in the deep-sea turtle trade we call those young'uns 'chickens.' Don't get to be turtles until they weigh over a hundred and twenty-five pounds. Why, they're just babies. Come on over to the next kraal and see the really big ones" (page 186). One look and I was convinced. There, leisurely swimming through the enclosed waters, were the largest turtles I had ever seen. Turtles That Are Turtles "Four feet across and weighing up to four hundred pounds, sometimes even more," was his answer to my question. "Vegetarians, feed on eelgrass, catch 'em off Nicaragua, use nets to . . . say, my name's Ebanks, Capt. Allie Ebanks, master of the schooner Adams that brings 'em in. Come on down to the vessel. I'll show you the whole outfit." Luck was with me, for here was a man who could tell me the full story of the little-known turtle fleet. It was the theme of his own life. Little did I realize while hastening down the water front that this was the opening of a great adventure. "These are what we catch 'em in-all hand woven by my crew," continued Captain Allie, as he unfolded a heavy net upon the deck. "Y' know," said the friendly skipper as my tour of inspection ended, "y've seen the turtles, tested our nets, met my crew, and walked the deck of the finest schooner in the islands. Why don't you come with us when we sail tomorrow? See the whole thing for yourself." "Nothing could be better," I replied. "But don't for a minute think it'll be an easy voyage," he cautioned. "We'll be sailing into dangerous waters, the sea'll try to spit us out, and the wind'll hurl us back. The food's the same seven days a week, and we won't be back for two months. But, so far as I know, the story has never been told, and you'll be the first writing person to sail with us to the Mosquito Coast. Do you want to go?" "When do we sail?" I shouted, then rowed the little tender nearly out of the water in my haste to get ashore. Cameras and clothes collected, I reboarded the Adams. We sailed around Cuba, touched briefly at the men's home port in the Cayman Islands, and then anchored alongside the fleet, nestling in the lee of Mosquito Cays. Here, 30 miles off the northeastern shore of Nicaragua, we had reached the headquarters for turtling operations on the east coast of Central America. On this tiny, palm-crested island, scarcely more than a mangrove swamp, crews find one of the few sources of fresh water within easy reach of the turtling grounds. While seamen from other schooners came aboard to help refill our water tanks, letters from home and news from the States were ex changed for information about the latest ac tivities on the reefs. As I quietly listened, I learned much about the fishermen, their fami lies, and the turtles. Cayman islanders are British subjects, hard bodied but soft-spoken, seldom at home yet devoted to their families. They combine several schooners, a handful of men, and the lore derived from generations in the pursuit of the king of the Mosquito Coast. From grandfather, to father, to son, only the men and their vessels change. After 150 years the method of fishing remains much the same, and turtles, seemingly, are just as numerous. Even in the days of the Conquistadores, the green turtles were prized for the savory steaks and broths which stimulated jaded tastes of the Spanish warriors. According to legend, lost buccaneers were sometimes guided through the night by following the explosive breathing of the broad-backed leviathans, swimming in quest of sandy beaches on which to lay their eggs. Today the search for turtles has slackened, for many Cayman schooners and seamen are helping the British Navy. Grass to Suit Mr. Turtle's Taste Home port of the trim schooners of the turtle fleet is Georgetown, Grand Cayman, British West Indies. Though wandering yachtsmen have come to Cayman from far corners of the world, the story of the fertile islands, incomparable beaches, and hospitable * The author now is a second lieutenant, U. S. Marine Corps Reserve, on duty in the Pacific.