We arrived in Majorca, after six months of navigation through the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
The Oceana Ranger undertook its first transoceanic expedition.
We arrived in Majorca, after six months of navigation through the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
After we took refuge for a few days in Barbate ( Cádiz ), due to a great storm that kept us from going through the Strait of Gibraltar, we proceeded on our way towards the Balearic Islands, which will mark the end of our Transoceanic Expedition, from the Pacific Oceans to the Mediterranean.
We cannot always accomplish waht we plan. This morning, we have bad weather, winds of 30 knots and 2 meters waves. Plans have been cancelled for the last dives to the Ormonde mount, a part of the underwater mountain range Gorringe Ridge.
Despite this, results from this phase of the Ranger's expedition, begun in January 2005 in waters of the Pacific, have been satisfactory. At the Gorringe Ridge carried out 12 dives ( each couple of divers went down 6 times ) with the purpose of documenting marine life and the state of this incredibly remarkable ecosystem, located about 150 miles from the nearest coast. It is beyond remarkable; we are aware that some of underwater scenes we have set eyes on down here have not been seen by human eyes before. We know we are making history. Research on these marine mounts and on mountain ranges around the world are very scarce.
A new day of high risk diving; the dives reach depths below 40 meters. The closest hyperbaric chamber is in Lisbon, 500 km away. Conventional helicopters will not be able to reach this place and make it back to land.
All essential safety measures are taken; there is nothing to be concerned about.
Last night, we had a blues concert at the Ranger, by Danielle, Dana ans Indi. Meanwhile, we sailed twenty miles towards the Gorringe Ridge; to the mount of Ormonde.
This time it is harder for us to find the mountain summit. We find that all the available marine charts are wronhg and that none of the references we had were correct. At last, after modnight, we find the spot: at 32 meters deep in the most elevated area.
Next morning we awoke to a tranquil sea and sky. Soon after the first team of divers went down, those of us left onboard were visited by an ocean sunfish ( Mola mola ) measuring over one and a half meters long.
This was another day spent in the middle of the ocean. Upon awakening on the Ranger, the sea was ever so still. After we spent the night adrift, we had only shifted 4 miles, which, in the opinion of the captain and sailors, is not too much.
Today, the diving team planned to do four dives. They have decided to dive in pairs and separately, in order to better control the situation. Mar was feeling discomfort in one ear, but she is better now. Everything seems to indicate this is going to be a very nice day.
After 24 hours of navigation since we left the port of Lagos and proceeding on southwest direction, we have arrived at Gorringe. The crew prepares an anchor buoy to mark the place, which also serves divers as a guide when they sumerge. Finding an adequate spot to anchor has not been easy. Using the Ranger's sonic instruments, the captain has selected several spots within a 40-50 meter diameter, down to a depth of 30 meters. Bibi, the sailor from Cambados, organizes the auxiliary boat she will use to transport the four divers, the filming gear and a torpedo. The torpedo is a submergible device equipped with an electric motor and a propeller, and it is used by divers to go for long distances underwater, without much effort. At first dive, only a pair of divers will go down, these will be Mar and Dana Harlow. In addition to doing recognizance of the spot, they make sure the torpedo works well and they take a photographic camera along with them.
Two days went by since the expedition arrived at the Portuguese city of Lagos. During this time, we have secured provisions to continue the crossing: food, fuel, ship parts, etc. Xavier Pastor, who directed operations since the month of February has gone ashore, as did Nano and José Corral. Juan Pablo, Dana and Ines will proceed along with us, throughout the crossing towards the underwater Gorringe Ridge.
The Oceana Ranger's Transoceanic Expedition represents a magnificient opportunity to enjoy sightings of different species of cetaceans and marine birds. During the crossing of the Atlantic, between April 21st and June 9th, 2005, we were able to observe, and in most cases identify, diverse species of cetaceans and birds that, although a bit scarce in terms of numbers of individuals and species, it resulted interesting enough to us, in most cases.
Today we all got up early; we began leaving our beds since 5 in the morning to contemplate the spectacular view offered by the cliffs of Algarve's coast. Of course, this place has suffered the same urban abuse commited in any touristic place along the peninsular and insular geography of Spain.
Our entry to the Lagos marina is solemn, as we pass in front of the ancient fortress, which we reached through a natural channel and going under a drawbridge. A life size reproduction of an old caravel confirms to us we have arrived at port.
As you know, we have had rough seas, with the blowing hard on the prow side of the ship. By the end of the day, the weather improved. It is surprising how fast climate conditions change in the ocean. In a matter of hours, the situation can go from calm seas, without seabreeze in sight, to a storm, and vice versa. Although we know about the influence the oceans exert on the planet climate, it is in these circumstances when you really appreciate the dynamics involved, and how the sea as a whole is a living entity.
When silence reigns on board, it is a sign that no one feels like touching the keyboard. It has been the case with us the last couple of days, when the sea has been quite rough on us. As we draw near Lagos, in the Portuguese Algarve, the final stop in our Atlantic crossing, we are having the worse weather of the entire journey. The arrival in Azores is traditionally considered the end on the crossing, because the distance between Bermuda and Azores is the largest route for those who choose this course. However, outside this archipielago, we still have a good day's run ahead of us. We must not forget that the Azores are the summit of the Atlantic dorsal mountain range. When we set sails from its ports we still have another week of navigation through the Atlantic, before arriving at the first port of the European continent. And the weather is not favoring us on this crossing. We have winds of 35 to 40 knots, with high tides and sometimes really strong tides.
Today, we encountered a small turtle swimming all alone. This reminds me that we are navigating on marine turtle’s main migration route.
Until relatively recently, the life cycle of marine turtles was unknown and it was not until 1986, when the American biologist Archie Carr-one the foremost experts on marine turtles in the world-published his theory that turtles nested on beaches of North America followed a round migratory journey along the Atlantic, using Gulf Currents. I say round journey, because the turtles come back to nest at the same beach where they were born. In 1993, Spanish researchers Ricardo Aguilar, Julio Más and Xavier Pastor-two of them are Oceana members-corroborated this hypothesis, adding new data on populations of the Eastern Mediterranean.
During last night guard duty, the only new development was the proximity of a merchant ship that came close from the port side of the Ranger. Their potent headlights caught us by surprise, and it made us think it was a fishing boat; but they turned the lights off, and kept only the normal lights on. The ship kept coming closer and Bibi identified it as a merchant ship, so it was appropriate to establish radio communication with them to confirm our position.
“ Ship in position 35 degrees 17N and 26 degrees W, this is the Ranger. Do you copy? Over ".
“ Ranger, Ranger, ship in position. I copy. Over. ” They answered alter a brief wait. Whew!
“ We are at 2 degrees from your starboard ” Do you see us? Over
“ Yes, I see you, no problem ”
“ Ok, thank you and have a good watch. Stand by channel 16 ”
They had seen us, so our possible concern was gone.
My first nocturnal guard duty has provided for a perfect lesson taught by Bibi, though young, she is a highly qualified sailor, and with her fresh personality and serenity, she has instantly gained my trust. Throughout my three- hour guard dury shift, Bibi has taught me how to keep watch for any anomaly that may occur along the route, check for wind speed, or keep an eye on the horizon for some ship.
Nearly Fifty miles from the islands of Pico and San Jorge is the location of the Joao de Castro ridge, an underwater active volcano standing at 1,000 meters from the bottom and whose summit is just 13 meters from the surface of the sea. The sight around them is impressive, because of the methane gas emissions in the form of sumbarine fumaroles we can see and in general the hydrothermal activity observed around is worth seeing. There are also very interesting ecosystems emerged in the area: it is an illuminated oasis at surface level, in the midst of a dark world at the heart of the Atlantic.
The visit to the surrounding area of Azores was planned since before our ship arrived in the archipelago, but our interest grew as we read scientific works on this underwater volcano and as we exchanged ideas with researchers from the Department of Oceanography and Fishing from the University of Azores.
Our arrival at Horta (Faial) marks a new shift of crew members, but crew members at the Ranger are used to changes and always welcome new additions with a smile. Houssine, the underwater photographer, who was with us from the fist day, had to go back home for family reasons. Carlos and Guayo also left us, to take care of activities at the office. Two new sailors have embarked: Xose Manuel Gándara, a Galician based in Pontevedra, whose passion is sailing, and Nano Valdés, from Mallorca, who joins our expedition after navigating for 4 months onboard the Snooty and the writer, Ester Casado, I am the Director’s assistant, at the European office of Oceana.
Horta, the capital of Faial, is a small port city that was able to maintain its charm through decades, keeping the style on all buildings, restauring facades, and making sure no urban aberrations are built. They took care of every detail in order to preserve the city’s tradition and uniqueness. At the same time, its inhabitants have gained economic prosperity, and we perceive a sensation of affluence and general wellbeing among its 16,000 inhabitants.
It is a relief for a Mallorcan to find that some island inhabitants from originally poor regions have not necessarily become destructive beasts to the landscapes, cultures and ecosystems. Economic progress is possible while still maintaining respect for all that. Azores is a proof of this. A contributing factor may be the existence of governors among the islands who are endowed of some level of sensibility and decency.
Today is my last day onboard the Ranger, after crossing the Atlantic from Bermudas to Azores. Tomorrow, Ester Casado, Executive Assistant at the European office of Oceana will come onboard, to continue narrating the events on this Transoceanic Expedition that began last January 17th.
Starting tomorrow, I will be at the office again, coordinating the European section of our webpage, together with the rest of the departments, and facilitating the process so thte work we carry out at Oceana for the research and protection of the oceans may be instantly known by anyone who needs it, thanks to internet, this transmission tool capable of reaching the entire world.
During our second day in Horta, we were visited by Duncan, one of the more than 300.000 Oceana collaborators from around the world. As soon as he knew, that the Ranger would be in Azores, he got in touch with us, to offer his collaboration
After my latest night guard duty in this Atlantic crossing, I have been able to sleep a few hours before Nuño and Carlos played the bugle.
We are in Azores waters. We hope to arrive tomorrow ad midday at Horta, a port in Faial Island. The second part of the expedition is, in theory, the most critical step from the navigation standpoint, and it appears that we are going to complete it successfully.
We are approaching Azores. We estimate our arrival for Friday the 27th in the morning.
The bad weather continues. We are against prevailing wind. This morning we had winds of 35 to 40 knots. The worse is, they come from North East direction, that is, the wind practically hits the prow area, around the larboard mast. The winds reduced our speed to about 5 knots. We have lowered the jib, but we kept our mainmast sail, with some sail reduction and the mizzen, decided to lower itself, when one of the two ropes holding it hoisted broke. We resorted to using one of the motors, alternating the larboard and starboard motors, waiting for the wind to ease and allow us make full use of the sails. Were you not supposed to find carrying winds in the Atlantic? Well, as we did the rest of the crossing: always prow first (against the wind).
The spritis are good, although most people not on guard duty take refuge in their beds, to keep from bumping against one place or another.
Winds came back three or four days ago, along with a storm we have been trying to circle around and keep at length from it. In general, winds followed a Northeast direction, at 20 knots, sometimes increasing up to 30 knots. We advance at full sail again. When Bibi, Sole and Jose were on guard duty, the Ranger reached a speed of 10 knots, despite the fact that the wind direction is not particularly in our favor.
What are the chances of two catamaran ships refueling, one after the other, on an island at one the extrems of the Atlantic? And, what are the chances that both catamarans coincide in the middle of that ocean six days later? And that they have the same destination port?
After three days of sailing, the wind dropped below 10 knots, and we were forced to use the motors again. We alternate between them every twelve hours so they make the same effort and we can balance the use of fuel in both hulls (in the three days of navigating by sail we saved 600 liters of fuel).
The weather started to change. There is a 20 knot wind that allows us to navigate towards the East, at a speed of 8 knots. It is not bad at all. The sea is agitated, the waves swell up, but is manageable. It is not an easy task moving around the ship without having to hold on here and there, or work on the computer, but the two hulls of the catamaran provide for an enviable stability nevertheless.
The crossing of the Atlantic continues without delay. The sea remains practically calmed, with some moments of wind blowing at 10 to 15 knots which have allowed us today, for the first time, to raise all sails and navigate without the help from the two motors during some time, pushing the Ranger ahead at 6 or 7 knots.
When I was in the middle of one of my daily guard duties, Nuño and Carlos began-by surprise-a drill to abandon ship. They sounded the siren and announced through a megaphone: “Attention, attention, this is an emergency drill, abandon ship, this is an emergency drill, abandon ship, please, leave your posts at once”. In a split second, the entire crew dashed about. Some of them were sleeping, others on deck or in the messroom, but the reaction was instant.
Last Saturday, April 3, it was three months and a half since I went ashore from the Ranger in Fort Lauderdale (Florida), when the catamaran ended its first leg of the passage through waters of the Pacific in Central America and West Caribbean.
At then in the morning, everything is ready to set sails.
Nuño has gone to customs to pick up the documentation we got when the Oceana Ranger arrived in Saint George’s Harbour in Bermuda, then on to gather supplies like flare guns to signal in case of emergency. We were required to leave a deposit upon entering to the country and submit a list of names of new crew members.
Once we passed the last buoy on the channel, Carlos gave new crew members instructions about safety measures onboard. He told us what each of us had to do in case of emergency, how to act, under whose orders we would be, and where to go in case of abandoning ship. Some “veterans” also participated in this talk, since it does never too redundant to know this type of information.
It is funny how human behavior can resemble that of animals.
In my first day onboard the Ranger, I have the feeling that I have been to an anthill. Ever since Nuño and Carlos sounded the bugle at 7 this morning, the crew, like “working ants” began to take care of the tasks assigned to them previously.
Today, three new crew members joined the Ranger to “commit” the crossing of the Atlantic. They are Xavier Pastor, Eduardo de Ana and Alicia Fraile. Xavier, a marine biologist, is the Director of the Oceana office in Europe, from where he spearheaded the Transoceanic Expedition, with enthusiastic support from Steven and Annie MacAllister, owners of the catamaran we are sailing in now.
Since the Oceana expedition arrived in Bermuda, the weather has been dreadful, with winds of 30 knots, rain and two meter waves. Yesterday we went out to see if we could go on our first dive, as the wind had decreased to 10 knots and the water did not see too murky.
“On our way to the reef area, while on the auxiliary raft, we stop to film a Portuguese Man-of-war (Physalia physalis). We had just reached our spot, when we found almost at surface level, at one meter deep a juvenile specimen of loggerhead turtle (Caretta carettta) two or three years old. Its carapace may have measured 30 to 50 centimeters long, similar to the size of turtles from the Azores area; with the Gulf Current in their favor, they could be there in 10 days” Ricardo tells us, at the end of three hours of intense work which he shared with the divers, Mar, Houss, Sole and Bibi. The latter was in charge of the auxiliary boat.
Divers lose heat very quickly underwater. Neoprene diving suits are designed with specific thickness, to be worn in different dive areas and depending on water temperature. There are long and short suits. For instance, diving in a reef area in a short diving suit is not recommendable, because of the many stinging animal found there, such as jelly fish, corals, sea urchins….and neoprene can also serve as a shield.
When Carlos pointed me to the immense cruise ship that was coming in through the Saint George Channel, my first reaction was to run to get my camera and go on deck to take photos. As so did my crew companions, including Nuño, the captain. Outside, the colossal ship from Norwegian Cruise Line advanced slowly, while diminute tourists looked around from the railings on deck. They were oblivious of course, to the harm these pleasure trips cause the environment and anaware of the dramatic moments we were about to live: the cruise ship crashed against one of the sail boats anchored at the bay and, loosing control of the ship, its trajectory pointed directly at the Ranger. As Carlos says,”to be close to land is dangerous. Fortunately, our crew has behaved very well, reacting to the emergency fast, like cats”
The coral reef surrounding Bermuda acts as a protective circle to the island and its inhabitants. First, in a physical manner, sheltering the island from storms, as this ecosystem acts as a barrier where waves break off. “In fact, the most superficial corals are the most damaged after a hurricane”, Ricardo confirms. Clothed by this impressive and beautiful natural barrier-also a source of life and food-the people of Bermuda take shelter under a second protective layer: their coral houses.
As we approached the island, apart from observing the undulating aspect of the landscape-because of its rolling hills-we noticed immense white spots that were scattered around the island. It could not be snow; we thought it could be some type limestone…Now we know the reason for that color: all houses in Bermuda have the same kind of stepped roof, of an intense white color. It could have been lime, like that covering the walls of houses in the Spanish south, but this is actually coral. We learned this from Cubbit Smith, a Bermuda resident whose ancestors from this island go back more than 300 years. He says it with pride and, it also appears in his presentation card.
Yesterday night, the wind and rain hit the Ranger’s deck area again. Nuño commented that the wind speed was at least 30 knots and it is expected to blow with the same intensity today. “Naturally, today we cannot dive either, but it is a sunny day, so we can explore some nature parks on the coast.
7:00 a.m. The Ranger remains anchored at the bay of Saint George. This first day in Bermuda is dark; rain and wind were pounding hard. Nuño, Carlos and Ricardo meet to analyze the situation and organize the work for the members of the expedition. The fact we were anchored instead of docked by the port further complicates plans, because we depend on auxiliary boats to go ashore. One thing is clear: due to bad weather, today we are not diving.
11:00 a.m. We wait impatiently for the weather to improve in the next few days, because we have planned a series of dives to document corals and phanerogams, sea horses and anyone of the numerous ships that were sunken centuries ago near these coasts. That is the case of the Spanish passenger ship “Cristobal Colon” that sank at the beginning of last century. In order to accomplish these tasks, it is important that the members of this expedition are able to move about freely through this island. But we soon found out with a dash of desperation that it is impossible to rent a car in Bermuda. Car rental companies simply do not exist here. Most residents of Bermuda-about 70.000 people live in the island- use buses, taxis and scooters as transportation modes.
12:30 a.m. Bermuda emerges magnificent in the middle of the North Atlantic, like a wavy line of rolling, green hills. There it stands, at a place with nothing around for hundreds of miles- except deep waters reaching down 4.000 and 5.000 meters- its sighting brought comfort to the Ranger’s expedition members. It has been five days of travel since we left Bahamas, as a storm began to form and threatened to reach the catamaran, keeping us from carrying out the dives we planned for the Sargasso Sea, at least for the moment. Quite frankly, we all look forwards to going ashore.
Although many people know it as the Bermuda archipelago, its residents just call it Bermuda, as if it were only one, indivisible island. And it is. Observing the nautical chart our captain uses, we can see it quite well; Bermuda is an almost perfect circle. The southern part is elevated, forming a figure in the shape of a hook, measuring about 30 square kilometers, while the north side is submerged and forms an immense coral reef. In the middle of this gigantic ring are superficial waters; outside of the circle, the deep ocean.
The Sargasso sea…. It is so diferent from any other place on earth that it may well be considered a definite geographic region ". By Rachel Carson.
“Land on sight!” after months of navigation, Christopher Columbus’s caravels began to encounter large clusters of yellow brownish algae, on which small crabs and crustaceans of all types floated. The Great Admiral thought that, at last, they had reached land. His calculation was erroneous. They were in the Sargasso Sea, at more than 1.000 miles from the American continent. The Portuguese named it that way because of the immense accumulation of algae floating adrift for kilometers after kilometers, it reminded them of a common grape from their country, the “salgazo”.
The Sargasso Sea occupies 2.000 square meters, extending almost from the US coast, to the proximity of Azores, and it is estimated that it may contain around six million tons of these algae. These include two predominant species: Sargassum natans and Sargassum fluitans. Unlike other similar algae from the Mediterranean or the European Atlantic Sea, these two types of Sargasso are not attached to the substrate, but live exclusively adrift. In order to float, they use small capsules filled with oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The Ranger is now traveling through the south side, where algae density is lower.
The Portuguese man-of-wars we have begun to see are fascinating and dangerous organisms, abundant in these waters in the Bermuda Triangle, rich in Sargasso. Today, their presence has decreased a little, but once in a while someone on the Ranger still sounds the alarm: man-o-war starboard side!”, man-o-war by the prow!”… We see them pass, drifting at the mercy of the wind and surf.
In the open sea, at 350 miles from Bahamas, it was a remarkable sight to see flying fish jumping out of the water and glide over the surface, moving their fins so fast that they resembled a hummingbird. This morning, a tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus) came to visit, and returned in the afternoon. It is a beautiful bird of elongated tail, which would fly around the catamaran and then glide over it, as if looking for a place to land. Indi, the naturalist, consulted his species guide book to give us further information. Tropicbirds are called rabijuncos in Spanish, because their tails resemble a flexible plant called junco. They have relatively short legs, which makes it difficult for them to walk on land. This is why they go straight to their nests that they build over cliffs or ledges, from where they resume flight, being able to travel hundreds of miles into the ocean. How lucky! After this adult bird visit, a juvenile came to around. In this case, the feathers of the juvenile’s tail were fewer. In addition to the tropicbirds, we saw some petrels (Hydrobatidae), an exclusively a marine bird.
Now we are sailing with “choppy seas” comments Carlos, the first officer “and the foam that forms around the crest of the waves when they break are disappearing. It is a sign that calm is coming. Our navigation becomes very slow, advancing barely five knots, so Carlos, who was on guard duty at that point, decided to lower the sails and switch on the motors. The captain, who was resting, came out see what was going on.
5:30 p.m. Just after we left Bermudas, the captain ordered to hoist sails and we are traveling that way ever since. The cold front that kept us from sailing away is behind us now. Fortunately, weather forecast is in our favor now. “Weahter conditions are optimal, let us hope it lasts” –everyone comments.
During the seven days we spent in Green Turtle Cay, at the island of Abaco (Bahamas), the main objective for Carlos, Nuño, Bibi, David and Jose Carlos was to prepare the catamaran for the next leg of the journey. “Many of the tasks we perform onboard are geared to improve the systems, both while we are docked, as while navigate”-indicates Carlos Perez. In this context, they have prepared a complete system “to be able to work with the mizzen sprit as if it was a crane and be able to load auxiliary boats onto deck” –he explains to me. “This will allow us more control of the boats when the sea conditions worsen while at the same time we can operate with fewer personnel.” They have also performed routine oil change to the motors, installed special containers in the bridge to keep binoculars and lanterns, they finished cleaning the hull-“because the “beard” on the ship grows very fast” and they have also installed the platform where the dinghies are placed. Oh! And we also moved the life savers to a more logical location!
This is the last day the catamaran Ranger remains anchored at Green Turtle Cay (Abaco Island in Bahamas). We arrived here on Sunday, April 24 and since then, many things happened to the Oceana crew. As we are leaving, we are satisfied, because we have filmed Nassau Groupers, parrotfish, sharks…although turtles have been elusive.
Mar remained onboard the Ranger this morning, cleaning the case that protects her video camera while under water. When we came back to our home base operations in Green Turtle Cay after our daily dives, we found her patiently examining each of the case parts: screws, pressure joints, bolts, handles, 32 sealed tight devices…fortunately, when the humidity alarm went off yesterday, she was still floating on the surface, filming the other two divers from the water: Houssine and Sole as they prepared their diving gear. Making use of swift reflexes, Mar took off her jacket (floatability control; in diving it is just called jacket) and asked Brendal to grab the camera, and screamed at Houssine: “No, don’t jump!” “The camera made water”. When she opened the tightly sealed case once onboard, a flow of water came out, seting off the alarms again.
Let’s get back to the ship!-Ricardo calls out. In the fraction of a second my brain processed the authentic meaning of those words: “Danger, sharks”! My companion points down with his fingers, ten or twelve meters to the left. Right where the reef ends and a deep underwater ravine of sandy floor begin, I see the animal emerge. If I had been able to scratch my eyes underwater I would have. But after the moment of fascination, a visceral fear began.
We are in hurricane area and the residents of Green Turtle Cay are still getting over the devastation left by the last one. The first officer onboard, Carlos Pérez says he has seen many moorings torn apart in Marsh Harbour. He went there with David and Indi, to purchase oil and motor parts. They took a ferry that transported them for three nautical miles. From there, they had to rent a car and drive nearly 40 kilometers, until they reached a small town in the island of Abaco. Indi took the opportunity to purchase yogurt and bananas, two items that disappear very fast at the Oceana Ranger. I can attest to the fact that the Ranger crew is very health conscious.
Today we gave Houssine, the photographer, the day off; he got up this morning feeling terrible muscle spasms. Although we gave him anti-inflammatory pills and a massage, he still did not feel better. It must be a cramp. In addition to being a photographer, he assists Mar, the Oceana filmmaker, by holding a heavy light beam while underwater and even holding Mar…to keep her from sudden movements that could frighten the species that is being filmed. The effort pays, in the long run. Houssine prefers to stay back on the Ranger, Bibi will replace him. He knows we will try to film sharks tomorrow, and that will not be an easy task.
Yesterday we ended the day with excellent news: We can fix the motor in this place. Fortunately, David found out that, by mistake, the Fort Lauderdale mechanics connected the hose that runs underneath the flotation line to the motor, causing it to be flooded”, comments Carlos Pérez.
The Oceana Ranger will be anchored for the next five days off the island of Abaco, in a place called Green Turtle Cay. Early in the morning we meet with Brendal, a Bahamian who has been an institution in this area for more than twenty years because he knows these waters like the palm of his hand, and who will help us to find the best dive sites. The plan from now until Friday is to search for sea turtles, above all the loggerhead (Caretta caretta).
1:00 a.m. Although we spent the night anchored at Great Salt Cay, for security we continue the night watches. The weather forecasts continue to be good, but an intense wind has picked up. The plan for the Oceana Ranger is still to set sail again at dawn.
1:30 a.m. Someone broadcasts a radio message asking for help, but it's impossible to understand. It repeats once, and then there is absolute silence.
About an hour ago we anchored off Great Salt Cay, halfway to Abaco Island, to spend the night. Nuño decides that we cannot keep sailing without light because from here it is dangerous to sail at night. The waters in this part of the Bahamas are shallow and although the Oceana Ranger, like almost all catamarans, hardly sinks in the water (a meter and a half), there are stretches where the depth doesn't reach one meter. Apart from the risk to the Ranger, another important consideration is potential damage to the corals and sponges so abundant in these waters.
The Ranger has arrived at Bimini (in the Bahamas) ahead of schedule, at 6:15 a.m. We couldn't anchor until the first light of dawn. The wait was justified: it was important to be able to see the sandy seafloor before letting down the anchor because in this area, Ricardo explains, there are many sea grasses, and we have to take extreme precautions not to damage them.
I am writing these lines at the end of the day, because Friday the 22nd has been very intense. While Ricardo, Annie, David and I went on a reconnaissance mission in the dingy, the diving team was preparing two long dives, from which they returned brimming with excitement. Now we are recounting all of the day's work. From the dives, we can remember some 40 species at the least and two dozen invertebrates, as well as a dozen types of algae and plants.
8:00 a.m. The crew is ready to begin the day. We have to move the Oceana Ranger to the site where the press conference will be held, at Bayside Miamarina (right in the center of Miami, the immense Latin metropolis of the United States where if you don't speak Castilian it almost seems strange). The port captain, Juan Ginarte, comes by to guide us there. With us is Doralisa Pilarte, Director of Communications for Oceana North America, who has organized this meeting with the press.
Yesterday a new sailor, José Carlos Corral, came aboard. He is also a diver, has been since he was 15. "You must have 3,000 dives logged," Mar says to him. "Well, the truth is I haven't counted..." José Carlos has been working as a dive master in Zanzibar for the past three months. For non-diving-experts, the title of dive master allows him to serve as a guide for groups of divers. Our new Expedition colleague is also a guitarist. "I was trained in classical but I play jazz." If the trend continues we'll be able to start the "Ranger band".
Sole threw herself back into the water today to continue the cleaning of the hull and to take a few photos of its current state. Nuno, our captain, gave her precise instructions about the area and parts to check.
"Indi, run, come on, come on, drop everything!" shouts Nuno, the captain, from the cockpit. You should have seen how Jose Pañalver (that is, Indi) left the Ranger kitchen. Well, Indi and myself, of course. He was chopping vegetables to freeze in bags. I, across the room, was watching him while writing this journal, of which he will be the protagonist today. Airborne is an understatement. We didn't know it, but outside a splendid osprey (Pandion haliaetus) was waiting for us, performing spectacular plunges in search of a tasty fish.
Nuño Ramos is the captain of the Oceana Ranger. His connection with Oceana is the result of years of engagement in environmental causes and, more specifically, with the marine environment. Also, of course, because of his friendship with Xavier Pastor. A few years ago Nuño was one of his collaborators in the founding of MarViva, the organization of civil park rangers that cooperates with the governments of Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras and other Central American countries to protect the waters of the
The Ranger has been docked for the past few weeks at Harbour Towne Marina, in Florida, and the crew, captained by Nuno Ramos, is toiling to bring the work to a close. Everything must be in perfect condition before the Atlantic crossing, headed to the European coast.
Amidst everything, Ricardo Aguilar, Director of Research and Projects for Oceana in Europe, has returned to the transoceanic expedition in order to lead the upcoming activities aboard the Ranger. Ricardo has already traveled with the Ranger between the Panama Canal and Cayos Cochinos (Honduras), along with Xavier Pastor, Director of Oceana in Europe.
For my own part this will be my first real experience on board a boat. Generally I conduct my work as Director of Communications for Oceana Europe from a chair at the center of the Oceana office in Madrid. It consists of disseminating information about our campaigns and research projects through various communications media, and of attending to the requests of journalists, with the greatest possible speed. Now I've come to Florida with Ricardo to relieve my colleague Maribel Lopez of the writing of this journal. While I write these lines it is raining torrentially outside.
Today, finally, the mizzen we've been waiting for arrived (for the non-initiated, the mizzen is the stern sail, which helps to stabilize the boat while sailing). Bibi, our Cambados sailor, comments, "my back is ruined from carrying sails, but it was worth it, I'm very happy, finally everything is in place." We have also received the new dingy, which is 4.5 meters and has a 30 horsepower engine. With the dingy, our dive team (videographer Mar Mas, photographer Houssine Kaddachi and ZOEA biologist Sole Esnaola) will be able to work much more comfortably. Also today, Sole slid into her neoprene suit to inspect the hull, clean off the algae and leave it clean for the beginning of a new journey. We are also installing a new life raft.
While our diving mates were enjoying their non-vacation, Nuño, Carlos, David and I were working on fixing up the catamaran. Trim the rigging, change the halyards, check the sailing gear, shopping list, inventories, check communications ... We began preparing the Ranger for crossing the Atlantic, and the closest passage to the Bahamas.
April 1st. Finally we reached Fort Lauderdale! After more than two months aboard the ship, the diving crew - Mar, Houssine and I - got permission to take a short one-week vacation to rest. After several attempts to get a reasonably-priced flight to Jamaica, Puerto Rico or Cuba, we ended up deciding to drive to the Florida Keys.
The night watches are peaceful; however, today we saw more boats around us than ever, most of them much bigger than the Ranger. A cruise ship passed close by us at full speed and we could clearly see all the deck lights and its passengers dancing in the disco; it may have benn heading for Fort Lauderdale ( Florida ) just like us.
At dawn we can see in the distance a line that sketches, through the morning fog, Cuba's silhouette. The night has been calm and the morning begins the same. This allows us to observe from the Ranger's deck that between the floating sargassum we can see the small fish that take refuge underneath. Others blend in, like the Sargassum pipefish (Syngnathus pelagicus).
Finally we are able to leave Isla Mujeres. We head to Florida with the hope of stopping along the way at least once to dive.
One of the things that has surprised me the most on this trip is that, contrary to what I had thought, in this area of the planet the ocean is like an enormous blue desert.
On the longest crossings we barely see any birds or fish, only cruise ships and container ships. Probably the great depths in this area, and the oceanographic conditions, do not allow for rich marine life near the surface in the Honduran, Belizean and Mexican Caribbean.
A small tern accompanies us, winging across our wake; little by little it reaches our prow where it pauses for a few minutes to rest. It takes off and disappears into the horizon.
In the afternoon we have the good luck to catch a common bonito (Sarda sarda). We are glad to know that tonight we'll be eating fresh fish. We clean it and prepare it with onions. At this point, we may have filled our large fish quota for the next two weeks. Because of the high levels of mercury in tuna and similar species all over the world, health authorities advise against consuming these fish more than once or twice a month. Oceana has launched a campaign to raise awareness of this problem, to call for mandatory labeling of these fish as dangerous, and to put an end to mercury releases by chlorine plants (details about the campaign are on our website).
Still we cannot leave Isla Mujeres. We use the time to buy groceries and prepare tortillas de patatas (potato quiche). During the meal we laugh, remembering a few choice moments of the days past at Cayos Cochinos. For example, when we had completed the study of salinity, etc., and were returning to the base, all of a sudden David looked back and saw that, while our dingy was happily secured to the Ranger's stern, surprise! - the dingy's motor had decided to do its own dive and was completely submerged, fastened to the boat only by the security cord.
The alarm was given; the captain stopped the motors. We launched Operation-Rescue-Overboard-Motor, this motor having a particular determination to see the bottom of the ocean, for something similar had happened in Panama. Finally, we managed between us to get our little motor floating again: Houssine (our photographer on board) dove in to coax it firmly back to the surface. Over our fright and happy - since the motor, once cleaned with fresh water, had started working again - we caught our breath and continued on our way.
Now that we have time to look back on our expedition we realize how fortunate we are to be part of this extraordinary adventure -- extraordinary not only because of what we are doing but because of the people working so hard each day to make all of it possible. I don't want to try to list names because I'm sure I would forget someone, but I also don't want to end this section of the journal without mentioning the exceptional crew of which I've had the luck to be a part.
We are taking refuge from the storm in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. It is only 10 kilometers from the coast of Cancun. The island is 7.5 kilometers long and 500 meters wide. Yesterday the port was closed to maritime traffic because of the bad weather.
In March of 1517 the Spanish expedition of Francisco de Córdova described the island, which was then a sanctuary for the figure of the goddess Ixchel and her entourage, small figures of women, on the island's beaches. For this reason, the island was known from then on as Isla Mujeres (Island of the Women).
Sadly, we leave the Honduran Keys without having had the chance to visit the local Garifuna communities. The ambitiousness of our work agenda and the bad weather has prevented it.
The Garifuna are descendents of the African slaves who, across the vicissitudes of history, established themselves in this area of Honduras but maintained their ethnic and cultural heritage.
Today we documented a zone of mud and fine sediment situated between the protected area of the Cayos Cochinos archipelago and the Honduran continental coast. This is the site of a good deal of illegal trawling, for many of the shrimping boats do not respect the legal fishing distance from the coast.
These areas are rich in green algae, like those of the genus Caulerpa as well as "chupachups" (Rhipocephalus phoenix) and a few spots of marine sea grass. Afterwards, we returned to Mariposales.
This time we did find crinoids, or feather stars, something which we have been wanting to document since we began the expedition. These echinoderms are spectacular and, inevitably, pull our imagination toward Jurassic times, the era in which they dominated a many marine ecosystems. On this occasion it is a black and white crinoid (Nemaster grandis). A little further, another echinoderm, in this case a cushion sea star (Oreaster reticulatus).
Today seems to be the day of the invertebrates; we've also seen bearded fireworms (Hermodice carunculata), a few anemones that we haven't yet identified, and we paused to film in greater detail a few corals and a giant barrel sponge (Xestospongia muta) - but a small one.
We never know what the weather will be like. Yesterday afternoon was clear but windy; the night was more calm. Most of the activities we have planned at Cayos Cochinos depend on the weather we have.
Today we are diving at Mariposales and looking for an airplane that crashed here - fortunately no one was hurt. Now the plane may serve as a refuge for various marine species.
Everyone aboard, the Oceana Ranger heads for the dock at Cayo Cochino Menor. We have barely been docked five minutes when the launch "Tiburon" arrives with the journalists from Channel 7, of the Honduran television show TeleCeiba. During the presentation of all the equipment we tell them all about the Ranger expedition.
This morning we'll go out with the Ranger to do a study of hydraulic parameters of salinity, oxygenation, temperature and turbidity. We will use a Secchi disc to measure the transparency of the water; the rest of the data will be taken with a multi-parameter probe. We will also undertake a study of the currents using a drifting buoy, or currentmeter, which consists of two buoys that support a panel of canvas that hangs downward because it is weighted on one end. We will be accompanied by park scientists.
After we've eaten, part of the team goes diving in the small paradise we have here just in front of the area designated for the science station, the marine prairies in which, our first day here, we were so delighted by the richness and variety of life.
Yesterday we decided that four of us would go visit the indigenous Garifuna communities in various parts of the small keys, with the object of documenting their traditional way of life and sustainable exploitation of the waters that surround their villages.
To document the daily life of the community we wake at five in the morning, prepare the filming equipment and go to the dock just as dawn is breaking. The gray of the sky gives way to blue, then orange and finally to the yellow of day, despite the clouds.
We wait for Elías Aguilar to bring us to Cayo Chachahuate. Children from this key and others are sent off each day in tiny boats to the community's school, which sits on the eastern end of Cayo Mayor. The boats are like inter-island school busses. Finally we hear from Elias that, because the night before had been windy and the water today is rough, the kids don't have school. So there is a change of plans.
The wind picks up; even from shore we can see the currents it is creating. A brown pelican takes advantage of the opportunity to show off his first catch of the morning. In a razor-sharp flight, almost touching the waves, he locates his breakfast and, seconds later, with an unorthodox landing, plunges his head into the water and captures his prey. He's so close to us that we can see the last thrashes of the fish in the pocket of his beak. This show alone is worth the painful early morning.
We eat breakfast at 7 in the morning on Cayo Cochino Menor, prepare picnic lunches for the divers, and the Ranger expedition divides into two groups for the activities of the day.
The research team and divers climb aboard the Honduran Coral Reef Fund's launch "Tiburón," which is waiting for us at the dock. The first group is transported to the Oceana Ranger, which has been moored at a buoy in the inlet for greater security during the night.
On the Ranger, we finalize the last details to conduct a bathymetric study in the northern zone of the marine park...
The operation will consist of taking depth measurements at different selected points. Once the points have been selected and their depth determined, buoys can be installed to delimit the protected areas of the marine park in what is called the Northern Macrozone, an area approximately 10 miles in diameter. Elias Aguilar, one of the park's resource guards ("guarda recursos"), accompanies Oceana's Xavier Pastor and Ricardo Aguilar and helps us to coordinate the project. The Fund has decided to call its staff in Cayos Cochinos "resource guards" rather than the classic "park guards" ("guarda parques") to emphasize the fact that their work, in protecting the natural environment, is intended principally to safeguard the responsible use of the marine resources, and thereby guarantee their sustainability for the local Garifuna communities that fish these waters in a controlled way.
We arrive at night at La Ceiba - at Lagoon Marina, specifically - and happily we are met at the mouth of the port and shown to our mooring. Suddenly the vastness of the ocean is replaced by a narrow corridor of green water lined by lush, extravagant vegetation, mangroves, herons that wake in the darkness at our approach and flap their wings before returning to their chosen branch to pass the night.
Early in the morning we had the chance to meet with Adrian Oviedo, the Director of the Foundation for the Protection of the Reefs of Honduras (Fundación para la Protección de los Arrecifes de Honduras), who is leading the conservation Project at Cayos Cochinos.
We coordinated our work plans for the upcoming days. We hope that we will not only succeed in documenting the ecosystem of these keys, but also that our work will be useful to those who are working so hard and so effectively here.
During the night of the 13th of March we had very good wind and were able to sail for several hours. With a wind speed of 25-30 knots and only the jib up we went at 9-10 knots. It was a wonderful feeling after so many hours traveling by motor - since until now we have had only headwinds or no wind at all.
First thing in the morning, we saw a flying fish (Hirundichthys speculiger) of almost 25 centimeters that had landed on the deck.
After having left the Panama Canal and the dozens of anchored boats waiting at Colón to pass through to the Pacific, we set our course northward through the waters of Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. We have traveled almost 400 miles since then and, except for yesterday, when we had, at some moments, waves higher than two meters, the sailing has been fairly calm. We've kept a good distance from the coast; perhaps it is for that reason that we have seen practically nothing - neither boats nor dolphins, and hardly any seabirds.
We get to Panama and go directly to the dock where the Ranger is. Our colleagues from the expedition are there waiting to make the crew substitution, filling the fuel tanks and generally preparing the boat to cross the Panama Canal.
After a week with only Coiba's blue waters and the deep green of its forest in sight it is a shock to come to a city. The capital of Panama is a battalion of skyscrapers standing guard along the bay - a city as surely as New York.
At perfect noon we are sitting on damp wooden benches atop a hill on Coiba with thirty uniformed police. One by one they stride to the podium at the front of the open air hall, give an extravagant salute, and accept a diploma rolled in bamboo from the Vice Governor of the Province of Veraguas. In the audience, besides us Ranger crew, are park rangers, MarViva staff, two television reporters and a handful of model convicts serving the last of their time.
It is late in the afternoon, the sun is about to set, and after a morning of diving, filming and interviews on land everyone is - briefly - back on the boat. The compressor is rattling away on the stern deck, filling tanks. It's deafening. Thankfully it won't be long until the tanks are ready and the film crew heads off again for a night dive. In the time we spend anchored the boat is like an airport.
These are skills I never thought I would need: the ability to drop an empty bucket over the side of a ship and have it hit the water at the perfect angle to immediately fill, so it can be pulled hand over hand back over the rail and poured over a head full of shampoo; the ability to spread my own back with sunscreen without missing a spot; the capacity to sleep for an hour or two at any time, day or night -- and rarely more. Also the ability to tie a clove-hitch knot, which is the simplest thing in the world when someone explains it and somehow impossible when the rope is in your hands alone. All these things are important, living on the boat.
But on to more serious matters: Yesterday was the first Coiba marine patrol since the implementation of the new fishing laws. We left in the afternoon on MarViva III. It was clear; as we moved northwest off the main island we passed other, smaller, bodies of land -- the islands Rancherita and Coibita. On patrol were two MarViva crew (Stanley Canales, the boat captain, and Miguel Delgado) as well as Rodrigo Rodriguez, Coiba's chief park ranger, and Rolando Ruiloba, the director of the park, from Panama's environmental agency (ANAM). We spent the way out talking about Coiba, the new fishing laws, and the collaboration between ANAM and MarViva, which has so far been seamless.
And a good thing, because there is clearly a need for it. The park rangers say that with the gradual closure of the prison camps emboldened fishing boats flocked to Coiba's shores. There was every manner of fishing -- commercial and artisanal, shrimp trawling, gillnetting, longlining, shark finning, diving for conches -- and in a few months an incredible amount of damage was done. It was only with the depletion of resources and the beginning of the patrols, the rangers say, that the boats backed off. There are far fewer now and the rangers hope to keep it that way.
La Isla de Coiba is the largest island in the Central American Pacific - approximately three times the size of Manhattan, or twenty times larger than Coco´s - and only 12 miles off the coast of Panama. It is the site of the Central Pacific´s most extensive coral reef system; a feeding and calving ground for blue whales, humpback whales, orcas and tropical spotted dolphins; and home to sharks, manta rays, billfish and tuna. Four species of threatened sea turtles nest on Coiba´s beaches. Crocodiles patrol its mangrove-lined shores. On the Panamanian mainland the island is famous, but not for its biological richness. For the past century the word "Coiba" has inspired fear.
Until last year Coiba was a federal prison. Panama´s most dangerous convicts were sent here - dangerous either to society or to the prevailing political regime. The jail was dispersed, with prison camps at various points around the island, and further dispersed because, according to legend, the prisoners were given leave to roam the island at night... while prison guards and timid inmates locked themselves in. Violence was a fact, not all of it perpetrated by man; in addition to the crocodiles, 15 species of snake, including lethal fer-de-lance and coral snakes, live on Coiba.
The prison population gradually dwindled as the twentieth century came to a close, but still The Panama Guide (Second Edition, 2001) warned visitors that "due to the continuing presence of the penal colony the safest place to anchor is off the biological station located on Punta Machete on the northeast tip of Coiba... The police are very friendly and if you want to go on any island trails one of them, equipped with weapons, will go as a guide and protector." Of Jicaron, a smaller island in the Coiba archipelago (in addition to Coiba the group includes eight smaller islands and 40 islets), the guide writes: "This island, separated from Coiba by a wide channel has strong currents which make it safe from any lurking fugitives. No one lives here and the beauty of the lush landscape can take your breath away. We rated Jicaron as the most wildly beautiful stop in Pacific Panama."
We're back in Golfito for a few days to restock, shower, and get information about Cocos Island out to the wider world. Today we held a joint Oceana/MarViva press conference at the MarViva base. A bus brought the audience of journalists and cameramen from San Jose.
Xavier told the story of Cocos, which by now is familiar to some of us but no less impressive. It basically runs thus: Until very recently Cocos was a wilderness apart. It was a haven for pirates and the occasional whaler, but otherwise unvisited and unknown. In the 1970s, however, nearshore fisheries were rapidly depleted and fishing fleets began to frequent the island in force. Costa Rica declared Cocos and 12 miles of the surrounding ocean a national park (1978); UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site (1997), but the designations were meaningless in practice, industrial fishing continued on a large scale, and one of the planet´s most extraordinary marine treasures slipped into decline. It was only with the creation of MarViva and collaborative patrols, in 2002, that things began to change. And change they did.
As Xavier said, "The ongoing work around Cocos shows that professional partnership and loyal cooperation between governments, private companies, and NGOs gives results very quickly. In three years MarViva has done a number of important things here, and if we could copy and paste this approach in other parts of the world it would be one very good way to change the situation in the oceans."
Back on the water again. Each morning I wake up at 6, forget I´m sleeping in a bunk and bang my head when I sit up. It was hard to leave Cocos but good to be moving, and there is much ahead.
Yesterday we passed a sea turtle. It is the first I´ve seen and from a distance we thought it was trash -- a dark object floating in a perfectly still, translucent sea. When we were closer we could see more clearly the turtle´s dome of a back, with a single ridge running down the center, which is a feature of the juveniles of some species. Our best guess was that it was a black turtle.
We left Cocos. We sailed northeast with the island behind us, gorgeous, streaming water as if it had just lifted itself from the sea. The clouds pile above it.
On the way out we pass another longliner coming in. This is the second we've seen since we've been at the island. The first had pled engine trouble as an excuse for anchoring in the bay; it's a common story and there is no way to confirm it. Last night the MarViva patrollers pulled in a six-mile longline that had been set in park waters. Still, this is nothing. The park rangers and MarViva staff say that three years ago, before they began their collective patrols, there were thirty to forty fishing boats in park waters at any given time. I can well believe it. It is impressive to see firsthand the continuous enforcement efforts, patrols that stay out all night through darkness and storms, and the continuous pressure -- any gap in the patrolling and the longliners will enter again. The new level of protection around Cocos is both dramatic and tenuous.
But what a difference it makes. Today, before we left, the film crew did a final dive. Juan Pablo reports:
"The site was called 'Dirty Rock'" -- a much-favored target for birds -- "and it is a little rocky island without vegetation of any kind. Underwater, the walls of the rock are fairly vertical and drop 55-60 meters. The form or the rock is a kind of pyramidal pinnacle, very steep at the start but which slopes gently toward the bottom.
This afternoon the filming crew took a break and the other divers onboard the Ranger -- writers and support crew -- went out to Manuelita. I don'tt know where to start.
It was late in the afternoon when we left. The sky was dark and the surface of the water breaking in swells and whitecaps. Hussein, who is patient in three languages, talked us through gear set-up and got us into the dingy. Aitor, a diver himself but too generous to put on a mask before every other person has had a chance, drove us to Manuelita across the waves.
We got our BCs on; we pressed masks to faces. We sat on the side of the dingy and flipped backwards, fins up.
There is so much under the water! Too much to know where to look. The bottom was rocky, like a moonscape, cratered, scattered with boulders. Every few feet an otherworldly rock formation rose from the seafloor. There were fish everywhere. Schools of soldierfish (red fish with big black eyes), deep purple surgeonfish edged with gold, trumpetfish -- some bright yellow, others translucent with a scattering of neon blue spots at one end -- hanging in the water. It's impossible to tell which end of a trumpetfish is the front, an effective deterrent for predators and admirers alike, and more than once I found myself seeking eye contact with an indifferent rear. There were lobsters in crevices, anemones among the rocks, pufferfish (some yellow, some black/white and spotted), large elegant angelfish, butteflyfish... so very many fish. An occasional parrotfish would dart by, looking paranoid; with its heavy head the parrotfish doesn't seem to me made for rapid movement. And then there were groupers, larger fish that didn't move rapidly at all, didn't move at our approach, big fish mottled blue/green or brown/gray. They stared back, turned a superior and cynical eye.
More filming today. At nine in the morning we are on a MarViva boat, speeding out of the bay and around to the other side of the island. This boat is smaller and more mobile than the Ranger, larger and more stable than our little dingies, and MarViva has offered to transport the diving team from one site to another.
Miguel (a MarViva captain) steers, Mar watches the water. Every once in a while fins appear momentarily, or something jumps and lands with a splash. For a few minutes we have dolphins at the bow. The marine life at Cocos, even on the surface, is extraordinary -- but in this place it is the norm. The island itself is verdant and wet, quite literally dripping with water; it falls in threads down the island's steep green sides. Some of the waterfalls disappear into the forest. Others have carved long channels from the top of the island down to the sea. Cocos gets 280 inches of rain a year. There is so much water here that the park rangers who work on the island (they rotate month-long shifts) have constructed a hydroelectric dam to power their base.
Cocos Island: A series of islands, really, one massive and countless miniature peaks that rise from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The main island is cloaked in forest. The smaller islets, of which there are many, all around the island, are little pyramids of jagged rock. Most have at least one hollowed-out cavern at the water line; when the sun hits them right they look like thatched huts with doors.
The islands are the center of a protected area that includes 24 square kilometers of land and 972 of water. The difficulty of access to the island kept it immune from human influence until the end of the twentieth century, when fishing boats, driven farther from shore by depleted fisheries, began to encroach. Cocos, however, has been lucky. The incredible number and diversity of species in and around the island have brought it international renown, and -- declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997, patrolled by MarViva and government park rangers since 2002 -- it has retained its character of wilderness.
We're here! We are at Cocos. We first saw the island, a gray splotch on the horizon, yesterday morning, and by the afternoon we could see its rocky crags, the lush green hills, and two MarViva boats anchored in the bay. Everyone was excited. We had Juan Pablo (director of VOEA and one of Ranger's divemasters) high up on the masts to film, swinging in the rigging like a spider monkey. Our two temporary guests (Marcela, director of communications for MarViva, and Alex, from FAICO) work every day to protect the island but had never seen it, so for everyone on board -- divers, biologists, Costa Ricans, Europeans, and Americans -- this was the opportunity of a lifetime.
At the twelve-mile border of the marine park we passed a long-line boat, just sitting there. There was a crew of five or six, a tangle of green and black flags rising from the boat (they are used to mark the long-line buoys), and "Punta Arenas" -- the boat's home port -- painted on the stern. Marcela says that the boats always wait on the border for a moment to enter, or use their knowledge of currents to let their lines drift into park territory even while the boat is legally outside.
It's obvious enough why they would. No sooner had we entered park waters than two dolphins joined us at the bow. Marcela said, "This is how you know you're getting to Cocos."
We left Golfito last night around 7 and have been traveling southwest toward Cocos ever since. The ocean has been perfectly calm. Those among the new crew who have never spent more than an afternoon sailing (myself included) are learning what it means to live on a boat from the seasoned sailing veterans of the Ranger crew.
The Ranger is here! She arrived yesterday. Everything has been crazy since -- people running around buying supplies, fixing engines, finding old friends -- and we're leaving for Cocos tonight. I'm more excited than I can write.
We (Xavier, myself, and some of the MarViva crew) went out to meet the Ranger yesterday morning in one of MarViva's boats. We were up at 5:30 and on the water by 6:00, coasting towards the Golfo Dulce through a morning fog. For fifteen minutes or so we had two dolphin escorts riding under our bow.
We met the Ranger near the mouth of the gulf. What a beautiful boat! She appeared on the horizon; we passed the binoculars back and forth until there was no doubt -- her white pontoons were bright against the water, and the Oceana logo was clear against the white. The crew were all on deck, grinning and waving, taking pictures of us taking pictures of them. When we pulled the MarViva launch alongside the larger boat there was a happy chaos of hugs and introductions.
Xavier has been in touch with the Ranger crew; they are nearby and should arrive in Golfito tonight.
We have been working closely with the staff of MarViva to prepare for the trip to Cocos Island. Some background on MarViva: The organization was created in 2002 to enforce protection in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Conservation Corridor (a string of five islands that includes Cocos, off Costa Rica; Coiba, off Panama; Malpelo and Gorgona islands, of Columbia; and the famous Galapagos of Ecuador) and throughout the Meso-American reef system, which runs from the Caribbean coast of Mexico to Honduras. Both areas are extraordinary. The islands that make up the Marine Conservation Corridor, on the Pacific side, all belong to the same geologic formation -- a ring of heightened seafloor that looks like a mountain ring on a topographical map. Because of the magnetic peculiarities of the area and the many currents that converge here, the corridor is a destination -- and now a haven -- for migratory species like sharks (silky, scalloped hammerhead, Galapagos and whitetip, among others), billfish (swordfish, marlin, sailfish), tuna, endangered sea turtles (leatherback, east Pacific green, olive ridley, loggerhead) and endangered great whales (blue and humpback). The coral reefs by some of the corridor's islands are among the few in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.
So here we are, waiting for the Ranger in Golfito. And waiting keeps us busy. There are arrangements with the marina to be made, communications technology for the boat to be tested, press releases to be sent out. Xavier is on the phone non-stop; I'm trying to learn as much as I can about Golfito, Cocos Island and the water in between before we abandon land and internet connection both.
Golfito ("little gulf") is a very small town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, just north of the Panamanian border, set on a "sub-gulf" that emerges from the larger Golfo Dulce ("sweet gulf") like a droplet of water from a larger drop. It was born as a banana town: from 1938-1985 Golfito was the southern Costa Rica headquarters of the United Fruit Company -- the much-vilified banana empire notorious for its involvement in the 1954 U.S.-sponsored coup in Guatemala, for widespread repression of workers, and for having economically colonized much of Central America.
Golfito boomed with the banana trade. Trains carried supplies in and bananas out. The town grew along the track and is still one long, narrow strand, nearly all the buildings set along one road. In the old days a train ran here, slowly; people traveled from one end of town to the other by grabbing hold as it passed. The Company -- and people here still refer to it as "la Compañia" -- built a hospital, schools, a pier, and populated "el pueblo civil" with worker houses.
I'm in Golfito. On one side there is jungle; on the other, ocean, and the Ranger should arrive any day. The adventure begins.
The trip to the ocean has been mostly through the air. I took a plane from DC to Miami; from Miami to San Jose; and this morning, in a plane that would fit in my bedroom, from San Jose to here.
Costa Rica is mountainous. From above it looks like wrinkled silk, the peaks clay-colored, the valleys full of a deep green, the ridges veined with dirt roads. I descended into San Jose for a night, and this morning, with Xavier Pastor (director of Oceana Europe), took to the sky again. The plane was no more than an aluminum cocoon -- I think it held 10 of us, tightly -- and I felt as foolish as a deluded butterfly trying to fly cocoon-bound. We at least had wings and we rose, miraculously, up out of the peaks until we were looking down again on the wrinkled land.
It wasn't more than twenty minutes before the ocean appeared at the horizon. It stretched forward to meet us, a smooth panel of electric blue. There was a long band of beach between the forest and the bright, bright sea. I think I will move here.
Up Next:The Crew