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The Green Sea Turtle and the Fate of the Ocean
By Osha Gray Davidson
Public Affairs, 258 pp., $26

By David M. Carroll

Considered by some biologists the most serious epidemic in the nonhuman world, fibropapillomatosis, or FP, is ravaging the world's populations of sea turtles. This disfiguring disease causes "conglomerations of warty nodules," some the size of dinner plates, to grow on the fins and face, impairing an animal's vision and mobility and often ending in death. In little more than two decades, FP has progressed from rare-disease to epidemic to global-pandemic status; today it is found in every ocean basin in the world and afflicts six of the seven marine turtle species on earth. But as if these facts were not terrible enough, there is this likelihood to contend with: A mounting body of evidence points to humans as contributors to the disease's cause and proliferation.

Fire in the Turtle House

Many of the turtles' encounters with people over the past century have had consequences with which readers will be familiar. Slow-moving and easily caught, the animals have been slaughtered for their meat, their shells sold in tourist shops. In recent years, their numbers have been driven down further still by the shrimping industry, whose nets, if they do not include turtle-excluder devices, also catch the unsuspecting reptiles. However, very few people know about the sea turtle's present battle with FP. News of the disease has largely been relegated to scientific journals and marine biology conferences, so we must be grateful that the subject has captured the attention of seasoned investigative reporter Osha Gray Davidson, a writer with an unabashed love for the ocean, which he calls "the axis of existence, the locus of planetary biodiversity, and the engine of the chemical and hydrological cycles that create and maintain our atmosphere and climate." His story is not just an epidemiological mystery -- though unraveling the sources and following the ravages of the disease are a big part of the book -- but an exposition of the natural world's complexity and interconnectedness, an exhaustive detailing of ocean ecology and humans' often disturbing relationships with it. Fire in the Turtle House, through glimpses as intricate as the toxic workings of microscopic dinoflagellates, gives readers a startling perspective on the fate of the planet by taking them through time and tides on the back of a sea turtle, whose every species is today endangered or threatened.

The Turtle House of the book's title is the local name for a patch of water off the west coast of Maui, Hawaii, where Davidson, while diving, came so close to a green sea turtle that (against his better judgment) he reached out and touched it. "For a modern Westerner, an intimate encounter with a wild animal is a rare gift," he writes. "I had expected their eyes to resemble those of snakes, with eerie black slits cut across incandescent golden irises. But the eye looking into mine is startling only in its familiarity. Her pupil is round like mine and surrounded by a light blue-gray iris." It is where Davidson also took his first underwater look at a turtle afflicted with FP. Cauliflower-like clumps were growing under the animal's flippers. "[The turtle] moves through the water slowly and heavily like death itself, dragging its tumors along. It is a terrifying sight." Today, Ursula Keuper-Bennett, who has been diving in the Turtle House since 1988 and to whom the book is partly dedicated, reports that some 70 percent of the area's residents have FP. Unhappy statistics also can be found in Florida's Indian Lagoon, Indonesia, the Cayman Islands, and too many other locations.

In answering the question, Why are the turtles dying? Davidson presents a synopsis of key issues affecting all turtles, in fact, all living things. His discussion ranges from "ranching" (in this case turtle farming), overhunting, invasive species, and overpopulation; to evolution and human-caused extinctions. Following the path of FP takes him to the shores of Hawaii; to the world's first sea turtle hospital, on the site of a former strip club; into the minds of dedicated turtleheads (the name given to those who have become obsessed with turtles; there are a great many of us); to the offices of dedicated scientists; and into the pages of history books. As a turtle observer who sticks pretty close to home swamps, and who is by no means a seafarer, I would have benefited from a map of the author's globe-circling quest to get to the bottom of this tragic environmental mystery. Perhaps, too, his account, which is laced with many asides and digressions, could have been compressed; but all have a bearing and Davidson is committed to telling a comprehensive story.

What he tells us, against a broad background that rightly delves deep into evolutionary history and habitat loss, is that the oceans are not well. Beginning in the 1980s, researchers started seeing mass mortalities in a wide range of sea dwellers. "What we're witnessing could be described as an epidemic of epidemics -- call it a 'metademic' -- in the ocean realm," Davidson writes. Twenty thousand harbor seals died in 1988, infected with a previously unknown pathogen now called phocine distemper virus (see "Northern Exposure," Fall 2001), and chemical pollutants are suspected as factors. In 1983, 95 percent of the Caribbean's sea urchin population was wiped out, possibly by a nonnative bacterium brought by ships passing through the Panama Canal. And there are the horrors of dinoflagellate outbreaks, which include pfisteria, responsible for massive fish kills in North Carolina. Agricultural runoff, specifically manure from large hog farms, has been named as a culprit. Davidson quotes Anfried Antonius, a coral researcher: "There can be no doubt that the gravest danger threatening coral reefs in modern times is the synergistic effect of man-made stresses and natural diseases."

But the way the ocean ecosystem and all its inhabitants, its algaes, corals, mammals -- and pathogens -- react to agricultural runoff, population pressures, sewage flows, and global warming, is poorly understood. Evidence is pointing to a link between the FP outbreaks, the proliferation of certain toxic dinoflagellates, and the turtles' changing ecosystem and shifting diet. But we do not know with absolute certainty. In this arises the conflict that is so frustrating to the turtleheads and scientists alike who do not shy away from passion, who work for a reversal of the anthropogenic forces that have endangered the earth's ecological health, who struggle for habitat preservation. Because we do not know with absolute certainty, there are endless calls for "more studies" and maddening refusals to acknowledge that we already know more than enough to proceed with far better, if not yet totally scientifically proven "right" action. These devastating delaying tactics are driven by economics and experience rather than by ecological awareness and ethics.

The author focuses on this issue in his evocative final chapter, in a dialogue with Sam Ka'ai, a kahuna or traditional Hawaiian spiritual leader, whose familial deity is the green turtle. "'Studies are like the tide', [Sam] said, spitting out the words. 'It flows in and out. But nothing is done.'"

Fire in the Turtle House is a deep and unflinching book. In an era of unprecedented extinction being driven by a single species, the book illuminates the background complexities against which so many living things of earth, air, and water struggle for life. Davidson cites a memorable line from Paul and Anna Ehrlich's classic book Extinction: "Many people realize the dangers of overexploitation, but the much more general threat of habitat destruction is lost on most of us -- including those of us who should know better." Will there come a conscious turning on the part of the species responsible, or will it be up to the workings of time and natural processes outside the sphere of human influence to bring about a reversal that will allow turtles to swim the seas as they once did, and glide in the direction of an evolutionary destiny not usurped and rewritten by the actions of humankind? Our species has an ecological as well as ethical stake in the outcome.

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David M. Carroll is the author/illustrator of three natural histories, including Swampwalker's Journal. His fourth book, Self Portrait with Turtles, will be published by Houghton Mifflin next year. Carroll has observed turtles for fifty years, since his first encounter with a spotted turtle at age eight.

OnEarth. Winter 2002
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council