The Fisherwoman and the Sea
THE FISHERWOMAN AND THE SEA
For days I watched her. Every morning when I looked out to sea the trawler was there in exactly the same spot: about half a mile out from our beach at Caye Caulker, twenty miles off the coast of Belize.
There was still plenty of fish about for a strong, keen-eyed eyed woman who could sense the turn of the wind and the churn of the currents beneath her boat. Even from this distance I could see her reeling in catch after catch.
“Ah, that’s Gabriela, Antonio Diaz’s widow”, said Santos in the bar that first night. “Tony was washed overboard during Hurricane Dean in 2007. Crazy fool was desperate to land his haul before the storm set in. Should have known better. It was only a month after they got married and set up house. Everybody on the island came to the wedding. It was beautiful, but you’re too young to remember. They never found him.”
A week later I started out really early and by 5.30 am I was standing on the shore, waiting for sunrise and the arrival of the fishing boat. And this time I took binoculars.
It was a small, 12-metre, steel-hulled trawler – at least 35 years old but well-maintained, with a 2-berth aft cabin and heavy duty rig for seine trawling, but no sign of nets or longline gear: just a bunch of spinning rods and trollers stashed upright in the stern, and washing hanging out to dry on the empty rig.
It seemed that unlike her husband, Gabriella believed in precision angling. It looked like she only caught what she needed: hunting the wahoo and mahi mahi teeming in these warm waters to sell in Punta Gorda. We can’t catch tarpon or bonefish anymore – they're protected species. Soon all the damned fish will be protected species and we’ll be down to nothing but crab and shrimp.
But that day she wasn’t fishing. The boat was at anchor and I could see her standing on the deck, hands gripping the rail, staring intently down into the water. Her braids were unravelling and blowing in her face. She brushed the hair out of her eyes then walked back to the bridge and motored away.
The next day she anchored in the same place, walked over to the stern, and came back staggering under the weight of a big wicker creel, which was obviously too heavy for her to lift and tip over into the sea. Instead, she grabbed handfuls of rubbish from the basket. But it wasn’t fish waste she was chucking overboard – it was junk. Piles of household junk.
I wanted to report her. We have enough trouble with the tourists and their plastic bottles and Coke cans and greasy sunblock leaching poison into the sea. But I looked at her determined face and carried on watching as she emptied her basket then went back to the cabin, started up her engine, turned her ship towards the horizon and headed off.
And so it went on. The next day I took my dad’s old Minolta SLR, hoping to catch her in the act. I watched as once again as she emptied the contents of her basket into the sea: carefully and silently, without a ripple.
I focused the lens on her basket. She was pulling out cups, saucers, plates, bowls, mugs, coffee pots, wine jugs and every kind of domestic artefact you can think of – and it was all pink. No, I’m not kidding you : pink. And not just any pink. Pink like the inside of a Queen conch or a Florida cockle shell. Delicate pink, like babies’ fingernails.
After three weeks of this my curiosity got the better of me and one day while she was busy in the cabin I rowed out to the trawler, fast as I could. But just as I was getting close enough to board would you believe it she came out and saw me, and although I waved and called out to her and flashed my friendliest smile, she turned on her heel, went back in and started up her engine. She left so fast my canoe nearly overturned in her wake.
And although by then I’d got into the habit of going down to the beach every day and scanning the horizon, she never came back.
Her job was done.
About two years ago I got up early one morning to go for a solo swim. It was a calm, sunny day and I had hours to spare before my customers arrived. The tourist trade had dropped right off, but my brother and I had started a side hustle on the mainland, crushing dead staghorn and selling it to the building trade for aggregate.
I put on my scuba gear and rowed out to Shark Ray Alley, where I dropped anchor and lowered myself into the tepid sea. A few metres below the surface I levelled out and swam slowly over the ridges and valleys of the reef. What had once been a fertile landscape alive with colour was now a moonscape: grey and lifeless, covered in the blackened remains of dead vegetation and the detritus from the broken corals. No sign of any fish, so I carried on swimming until I reached the cooler water south of Ambergris Caye...
Article from Coral Island Science Quarterly, April 2023:
by Allegra Sanchez
As the ratio of pollutants in the water around our atolls increases and the the temperature of the sea continues to rise, the spread of coral bleaching is now the chief concern for the marine fisheries, which still depend on the reefs for their livelihood.
Once the symbiotic algae that live inside them have been expelled due to heat or toxins, the coral polyps starve to death.
Coral extinction is also a huge threat to the Caribbean tourist industry, which relies heavily on the income from underwater expeditions. Without the coral, the richly diverse marine species the tropics are famous for would have no feeding ground or habitat and would disappear. And once the huge variety of sea flora, surgeon fish, mollusks and crustaceans that provide their food have gone, we’ll lose our stingrays, giant turtles and nursing sharks.
But perhaps all is not lost. An exciting new phenomenon has been discovered in the chain of barrier reefs which are now part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. The development is giving the scientific community cause for hope. It appears that the tiny larvae that live corals release into the water are capable of self-propulsion, and are beginning to migrate in their millions to cooler, less polluted waters, where they cling to rocks or any hard object jutting from the seabed.
The coral polyps carry within them zooxanthellae algae which use photosynthesis to form sugars, and these sugars give the polyps energy until they find protein-based food to eat such as artemia and rotifer plankton, and can start a breeding colony again. They take root on the substrate, excrete calcium carbonate, and begin building the skeleton of a new home.”
As I dived down into the cut in the reef, I noticed some activity on the sea bed in the distance . Moving closer I was astonished to find some young, crenelated corals: lilac, green and orange, interspersed with ruby-coloured anemonies. Blue and yellow tang were darting about between their hungry, waving arms. Moving closer I saw that the little ocean garden had taken root on a mound of broken, shell-pink pottery. I gently moved aside one of the pots: now home a big, fat starfish, and at last discovered the truth. Underneath the mound of precious wedding china lay the precious remains of Gabriela’s bridegroom.