Sunday, October 2, 2011

Cocos Island: There's Not Just One Piece in the Puzzle - William Henriques


It’s Sunday - day off for volunteers. The rain’s pounding down. It’s rained hard since 11:30 this morning, the most rain I’ve seen during my stay here. The stone path up to the main building is inundated with a murky, brown stream of water, and the small brook that runs through the middle of the station is no longer a steady trickle, but an invigorated rush. It’s been a big week for rain, and even the river that runs out into the bay pushes out into the low tide waters with more force than usual.

Yesterday morning was today’s antonym. Sunny and hot, with a light breeze rustling the palms. To escape the midday heat, Frank and I hacked open two coconuts, drinking the coconut water and eating the pure, white flesh while lounging in the shade of the Casa’s balcony. We were liberated from the morning’s work because we had been assigned to the evening patrol, which didn’t leave Wafer until 1:30 in the afternoon.

By the time 1:30 rolled around, the sun had disappeared and a bank of clouds on the western horizon had darkened the sky to a spectacular, deep bluish-gray. Waded out through the low-tide to the launch, and motored out to the patrol boat. Set a course to the north of the island, and by the time we had cleared Manuelita, a curtain of rain had descended.

About an hour into the patrol, and several miles out, two red blips showed up steadily on our radar to the northeast - fishing boats. Five miles away, we couldn’t yet see them on the horizon, but we set a course for them. Three miles off, they showed up on the horizon - two small, dark blobs bobbing in the distance. The two boats stayed immobile until we were within a mile of them - we were seven miles offshore, they were eight, four miles within the limit - when they fired up their engines. We chased them to the twelve-mile limit of the park, and once they had crossed the line and were safely outside the protected area, they cut their speed, and turned west, cruising along the circumference of the protected area. We ran parallel to them as we took down the boat’s names and registration numbers, but that was all we could do. The boats wouldn’t let us come any closer and we were unable to make radio contact. Resigned, and cursing under his breath, the patrol captain Guillermo Perez turned the boat back into the park’s waters as night fell over the Pacific in subdued, dulcet tones of blue, yellow, and gray.

There’s an image seared into my mind from this encounter. As we ran parallel to the boats, just outside the park’s boundary, I stepped out of the wheel house to get a better look at the registration numbers. They were difficult to make out, partially obscured as they were by the rust staining the hull. The fisherman stood in the stern of their boats, feet spread wide, balanced, needing no hold in the eight-foot swell. One was on the roof of the wheel house, with a camera, gesturing over towards our boat to his shipmates below. I could just make out the strains of voices above the grind of the engines. They were wearing an assortment of colorful clothing, and several were shirtless. Lean and muscular from days and days out at sea, setting and hauling lines, at the mercy of the weather and Old Man Sea. They were tico - pure Costa Rica.

I stared. They stared back. Their was something in their stance - not hostility, exactly, but a defiance - and I couldn’t help but feel some admiration for the men across the water, some respect. They are hard-working men. Fishing probably runs in their blood, a livelihood that has sustained their family for generations. They travel hundreds of miles off the coast, out into the Pacific, leaving their families for many months out of each year, in search of a profitable catch. Do they know anything else? I doubt it. And why would they come out here? I don’t know. But it seems to me that they wouldn’t make the voyage unless the fisheries along the coast had been exhausted. And what drives overfishing? More than anything else, it is the demand for food by the population on the continent.

Just as the myriads of species here are victims of poaching, so are the fishermen victims. They are the casualties of larger problems over which they have no control - namely, overpopulation. They are a small piece of the puzzle that is today’s troubled world.

I feel very strongly that the natural wonders in the waters around Cocos Island need to be protected. Poaching is occurring on a daily basis, and it needs to stop so that this unique and beautiful place may be preserved. But I also empathize with the fishermen. I have seen their boats, rusted and worn. I have seen Punterenas, the town in which they live. These fishermen are members of the working class; their lives are not easy. I feel just as strongly that the fishermen must not be demonized, must not be portrayed as the enemy. For who knows how many mouths they feed with their income? Their dignity needs to be preserved, their hard work must be respected. Not praised, but respected for what it is, because these men, like billions around the world, are doing what they have to do to get by, to survive.

By the time we returned to the Wafer Station at 9:30 pm, a light mist was falling, but the crescent moonlight glinted off the wave-peaks, shining through a small hole that had been ripped in the patchwork cloud-ceiling. Wading back up to the beach in the dark, cold and wet, its pretty easy to forget about the moonlight, forget about the starry sky behind the clouds, forget about the profound peace and stillness at the base of Manuelite, forget about the veils of water cascading off of the island’s cliffs, forget about the gentle rhythm of the patrol boat bobbing in the waves. Its easy to forget all of that and focus only on how uncomfortable my life is in that moment, slipping and tripping up to the beach.

But to forget about the rest is to see the world through a half-closed camera lens. It’s very limiting. I have to constantly remind myself to see the rest of the world too, to take the lens-cap off, and see the moonlight shimmering in the water of the bay through the rain. It takes constant vigilance, and still, I often fail to keep an open mind, fail to see the whole puzzle instead of one little piece. But I keep working at it, keep trying. Because it’s worth it.

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