I hope that all of you are aware that it’s no coincidence that we are gathered here today in Costa Rica. We are here because modern sea turtle research and conservation began here. Costa Rica has been a leader in sea turtle stewardship for more than 40 years. It all began on a beach called Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast of this country. As the name, Tortuguero (or “Place of the Turtle”) seems to suggest, it was (and is) a beach of extraordinary importance to the reproductive ecology of the Green turtle—Chelonia mydas. Dr. Archie Carr, whose books and papers many of you are still studying, launched the turtle program in 1954, and it still goes forward at Tortuguero today under the direction of the CCC. But how did Archie learn of the fabulous turtle beach? He heard of the beach from a man we are going to honor today. He heard about Tortuguero from a visionary Costa Rican, Don Guillermo Cruz, known to all his friends as Billy.
Billy Cruz was the first Vice-President of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, or CCC. I’m grateful for that. Because he did such hard work for the organization back in those early years, the CCC flourished, and now I have a pretty good job! The CCC was founded specifically to support the work of Archie Carr here in Costa Rica, and Don Billy was his right arm.
As I prepared my comments for this evening, I talked with many people who have known and worked with Billy Cruz — People like Larry Ogren, Chuck and David Carr, Mario Boza and Anne Meylan. And I didn’t have to look long to find Archie Carr’s own words about Billy Cruz and the important role he played. Archie mentions his contributions in such books as The Windward Road and So Excellent a Fishe. In talking with all these people, one common word was used to describe Billy Cruz —”indispensable!”
Archie Carr took a leave of absence in 1945 from his beloved University of Florida and went to teach Biology for five years at a new little college in Honduras – the Escuela Agricola Panamericana (or Panamerican Agricultural School). One of the outstanding students there was Billy Cruz. Archie was deeply involved in research for his first technical book — The Handbook of Turtles, to be published in 1952. Billy Cruz became acquainted with Archie and his young family, and learned of Archie’s interest in turtles in general, and the mysteries of sea turtles in particular. At the time, no one had a clue where the major remaining nesting sites were for these large reptiles in the Caribbean. At least scientists didn’t know. But Billy Cruz knew his own country, and he had heard the stories of heavy nesting concentrations on the beaches of remote Tortuguero.
Billy Cruz returned to Costa Rica and became an executive in the Republic Tobacco Company. Archie returned to the United States, but, in 1955, was invited to help establish a Department of Biology at the University of Costa Rica. Soon, Billy and Archie were back together, talking turtles and collaborating on the initiation of a long-term research program at Tortuguero. Owing to his business and political connections around San Jose, and his enthusiasm about the phenomenal turtle colony using the beaches of his country, Billy Cruz was able to provide insightful guidance and vital logistical support to the new program. He helped secure the permissions and permits necessary for the CCC to obtain a 99-year lease to several miles of beach, and to purchase a barracks constructed years earlier by the United Fruit Company. The building became the first research station for the CCC, and, because it was painted green, was known as “Casa Verde.”
But Billy was more than just a behind-the-scenes facilitator. As Vice President of the CCC, he began taking the message of sea turtle conservation to the highest levels in Costa Rica’s government. Don Billy was savvy enough to know that one of the key steps to saving sea turtles would be to get the decision-makers out on the beach to see the turtles up close. We all know what an impact that can make on someone, and Don Billy wanted to influence people at the top. So, he brought the President of Costa Rica (Pepe Figueres) and his family to Tortuguero to see the turtles with Archie Carr. On one fateful night, they encountered poachers who ran off in the middle of butchering a large green turtle. The President, his wife and children all stood and watched with Archie and Billy Cruz as the turtle slowly died. That event put the power of the Presidency firmly behind the cause of sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica – a tradition that continues to this day.
Don Billy also brought people like Mario Boza and Alvaro Ugalde to Tortuguero. Mario and Alvaro are responsible for having launched the celebrated Costa Rican National Park System. Working together, Mario, Alvaro and Billy Cruz helped make Tortuguero—the beach and the interior rainforest—one of the first national parks in the country in 1972.
Don Billy continued to fill a critical role in Costa Rica for several decades, until his health would prevent him from continuing at the same level. And so, ladies and gentlemen, by coming to Costa Rica to enjoy this the 24th Sea Turtle Symposium, we come back to where it all began. And by applauding Billy Cruz, we acknowledge one of the pioneers in the now global effort to study and save sea turtles from extinction. Two years ago, CCC established an award to honor people, who, like Archie Carr, had dedicated a substantial part of their lives to the cause of sea turtle conservation. We call it the “Archie Carr Lifetime Achievement Award,” and it is my great privilege to present the award to Billy Cruz.