Turtle's slaying shows we need more Cousteaus
June 29, 1997
Eighty-seven years is a long time, but not long enough for Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Unfortunately, he died before his work was done.
Although his ardent writings and dazzling photography awakened millions to the world underwater, he couldn't reach everybody.
Last weekend in Marathon, a little girl named Michelle was fishing from a motel dock when she accidentally snagged a sea turtle. The child called to family members, who hurried over to investigate the commotion.
You needn't be a student of Cousteau documentaries to know that sea turtles in Florida and around the world are in danger of being wiped out. The humane response would have been to unhook the animal and let it swim away.
That's what one of the girl's relatives originally claimed they'd done. But that isn't what actually happened.
According to the Florida Marine Patrol, one of the family members grabbed a spear gun and shot the turtle as it struggled on the end of the fishing line.
Then, witnesses say, the family carried it to their boat and sped off. Other tourists, infuriated, notified authorities.
When the Coast Guard intercepted the boat in Florida Bay, officers found the deck smeared with blood, but no turtle. On shore, more blood was found in a garbage can. Samples were collected for evidence.
Killing turtles is a serious crime. The Marine Patrol has charged Rene Robinson, Carlos Robinson and Ricardo Robinson, of Miami. The federal government also might prosecute.
Officers say Rene Robinson admitted spearing the turtle and stashing it in the garbage. When another relative informed him that keeping turtles was illegal, the family allegedly decided to dump the carcass offshore.
It was quite a gruesome little tableau to unfold on a Sunday evening in a resort area, the singular attraction of which is, ironically, its unique tropical sea life.
People travel to South Florida from all over the planet to see in person what they've seen only in books or on television—the soaring dolphins, the cruising sharks, the whole teeming kaleidoscope of the coral reefs.
They certainly don't come to see a helpless creature gored by some troglodyte with a spear gun.
Killing will happen as long as there's life underwater. Sea turtles and other endangered species are regularly taken, but often it's done because people are poor and hungry—not because they're bored on their vacation.
What took place in the Keys wouldn't have surprised Jacques Cousteau, though it would have saddened him. He spent a lifetime crusading against the foolhardy and wanton pillage of lakes, rivers and seas.
He tried to teach the difference between wise harvest and reckless butchery, and tried to show why all living things beneath the water's surface, from the regal blue whale to the unglamorous toadfish, have value far beyond the dollar.
It wasn't easy to open this remote new world, or to make outsiders share his awe. In the 19405 Cousteau helped invent the first aqualung, enabling humans to breathe underwater. Thus scuba was born, and soon the oceans had a political constituency.
Judging by the millions who dive and snorkel for the beauty, and by the millions more who flock to the Seaquarium and other marine exhibits, Cousteau's legacy is phenomenal.
Largely because of his pioneering, most who are lucky enough to see a wild sea turtle don't feel an impulse to spear it. Rather, they feel what they ought to feel, what their children feel: curiosity and wonderment.
Others feel nothing, yet Cousteau never gave up trying to enlighten them. He could have used another 87 years.