Ben White Yucatan Diary
Merida, Sisal, Chuburna, Progreso, Telchak Puerto, Celestun and Merida, Yucatan.
Executive Summary: I'm shut down, grounded, screwed, blued and tattooed. The scientific experiment turns into military occupation of 1,600 square miles of ocean. Fishermen report dolphins and turtles are dead on the tide. Two more turtles are found on the beach. We begin the deathwatch. The fishermen are royally pissed off.
I hit the road on Friday from Merida, checked out of hotel and loaded up wetsuit and picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe and cameras into the midget rent-a-car and headed out of town. Our rented legal tourist boat was on its way from Holbox. I wanted to ask along the coast coming toward them from the west what the latest rumors of the Maurice Ewing were among the fishermen.
My first stop was Sisal, a town only reached by sea or a road all to its own that cuts north through the mangroves from Huacma, near Merida. Driving right to the partially destroyed wharf, I had the good fortune to immediately find Sisal's harbormaster and port captain. This is a man who not only knows a lot about the local fishing, currents, political machinations of Pemex (the Mexican national oil company and major polluter) but who has had 14 years in the job to think about how things fit together.
For example, showing me a really good map of the Gulf of Mexico hanging on his wall, complete with ocean depths, he gave me his theory that the meteorite that caused the Chicxulub Crater was actually centered dead on in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and had raised the Yucatan up out of the sea, thus explaining the depth of the water and the shape of the whole thing, a big hole with one side almost joined by the convergence of Florida, Cuba and the Yucatan. He also said that the currents come in from the east to the west both along the north coast of the Yucatan and around the bottom of Florida headed toward Texas. And that there is an area in the middle of it all where the tides feed in and do not escape. Mariners have always avoided the spot, he says, keeping to the coastline whenever possible. One yachtsman, boat wrecked by a storm, was caught in the hole for days. Every direction he went, the currents pulled him back.
Oh, and the captain said that the Ewing was last spotted about 15 miles off Progreso headed west. Some of the fishermen from his port found themselves close to the Ewing the night before, wondering what the heck it was. The Ewing responded by smacking them with a bright searchlight and telling them to get away quick, that they were not allowed to be there, that the whole area was closed.
Then I pulled into Chuburna to talk to the Commissario of police, who I was told was a big advocate of the anti-Ewing movement. He wasn't at the office. One of his officers went off peddling his bike to find him, while I sat on the little wall to shoot the breeze with the guys hanging out there. One drove one of the myriad little vans that take Chuburnians to their jobs in Merida and back to the little coast town every day. When I started up about the Ewing his eyes got big. "Are you against that ship?" he asked. "Sure I am," I said. He jumps up, runs across the sandy street to his van. He said he had a pamphlet to show me. I figured it was one of ours and was happy it had gone so far. No. Even better. It was one he had written up himself to both send into the paper and agitate the folks he transported in his van. He asked me to read it to tell him if he had all the facts right. It basically said, "At this time with all kinds of problems and uncertainties with the oceans and the fishing families, why allow this ship to come into our midst?" Great job. I saw he had my name listed as the escudo humano who had come to stop the ship. I pointed at it and told him it was me. He was so happy to meet me that I felt like Mohammed Ali.
I pulled into Puerto Telchac right after Captain Alberto Santanna, the other skipper whose name I never learned, and Juan Carrateca, had docked our spiffy rental boat, the Cecy. The hungry press had already been notified to meet us at the port at 8:00 in the morning. When I drove in, they were talking to the port captain of Telchac, obviously nervous. They called me into this office to talk through a little open rectangle in the thick bank teller type window. He asked my name. I told him and waited until the next question. Trying to look like all the world like another stupid gringo just wanting to go for a boat ride. I watched the guy on the other side of the window. He didn't asked me anything else, but just very carefully outlined my name again on top of the first time with a pen. Then he did this a third time. Not a good sign. I was beginning to wonder if I had taken a wrong turn and wound up in Moscow, or Washington, D.C..
"Go to your hotel," he finally told my hosts. "We will come give you our answer in an hour after we check with our boss, in Progreso." We went to the little cinderblock hotel with the torn curtains and the imprisoned parakeets and waited. An hour went by. Then two. The deformed waning moon rose like a bright blood orange. Three hours. Finally someone from the captain's office came and picked up Captain Santana and Juan. Another hour or so passed, and they returned with the bad news. The wait was for a representative of the Port Captain of Progreso to drive to Telchac Puerto to personally handle the situation. This was the word:
1. No way in the world would permission would be granted. A 40-mile by 40-mile exclusion zone had been imposed around the Ewing and was being enforced by the Mexican Navy. Nobody enters, not to fish or anything. So there.
2. They were ordered not to take any estrangero (foreigner/tourist) out on their boat until the Ewing leaves on February 20!
3. The Captain was not even inclined to let them leave the port of Telchak to go home to Holbox until at least Monday, a two-day wait for nothing.
4. Whenever this king-of-the-seas decides they can leave, they need to radio him from every fueling port on the way home to show him they are really on their way home.
Juan was furious. He said the government was the Mafia and treated them like children. Over the long wait, I had already gotten used to the news and decided to head to Celestun the next morning to look for bodies. My trump card was gone. Actually the only way they could stop me from shutting the Ewing down by getting in the water was to close the whole area. I could fight the ship and win, or so I thought. But I couldn't fight the whole Mexican Navy. There is still a chance we can shut it down by finding enough dead bodies, but it looks increasingly like it will have to be a very high number. Two more turtles were reported yesterday, one in De Colorados and one in Progreso.
I called Rosario in Merida and cancelled the early trip to the port by the press.
The whole drama made me think about to what extent the Ewing, and the National Science Foundation and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of the Columbia University are willing to exert military and diplomatic muscle to push through seismic blasting over the will of the people who live nearby. Remember the salt-gathering scene from Gandhi? The men he had led hundreds of miles reached the sea and began illegally gathering salt, and the British police clubbed them down one by one. And they just kept coming and kept getting clubbed to the ground and then dragged off and nursed. Martin Sheen plays the reporter on the scene filing his report from a phone, aghast at what he was watching, saying that the British Empire just lost India. And indeed they had. His perception was the Brits did not have the stomach for the brutality they would have to exert to subdue the ocean of people Gandhi had mobilized to march. Peaceably, sure. But by the thousands.
Right now the people who live in the Sakhalin Island of the Siberian coast are taking to the streets to protest the devastating effect the search for oil has had on their island and the fish they depend on. The seismic blasting and rig construction and leaks also threaten the rare population of Western Gray Whales, numbering less than a hundred. All over the world, it is fishing folk and whales against big oil. Next week sometime, it looks like there may well be an angry planton (demonstration) by the fishing men from along the north Yucatan coast who are, like me, being made to watch the daily bombardment as they are kept to shore. If the Ewing, and every other seismic ship is dogged by protests every time they apply and then every time they show up, with the permits from the government and the opposition of the locals, and they must apply to the Navy for protection, how long will they continue this kind of global siege? How long can they justify it?
After the bad news in Telchac, and saying goodbye to my Holbox friends, I drove to the other side of the coast to Celestun. Walking the beach, I found the place I wanted to stay, a really simple Mexican hotel called Maria del Carmen with a third floor room that looked through an Australian pine and a coconut palm down to the beach. Some places just have a good feeling from their kind owner, and this was one of those. Upon arriving, I told Carmen who I was and what I was up to and she immediately gave me this room, at no charge, and blessed my efforts. I walked upstairs, looked out the window, and fell fast asleep for four hours. Must have needed it.
This morning I rented a small boat with driver and scoured the coastline for bodies from Celestun down to Arena del Campeche, quickly becoming aware of the complexity of the search. Much of this section, and the next section down to Campeche, is mangrove thicket. Even cruising 10 feet away or flying above, I wouldn't be able to find a body.
But it was a fine morning. I stood in the bow and tried to let the wind blow away my sadness, my frustration, my anger at the brute strength of the state allowing a bad thing once again, my feeling of impotence at being reduced to petitioning one of two unhearing governments with the pathetic remains of their slaughtered wildlife, like holding up the head of John the Baptist. Tellingly, there is no one down here looking for bodies in the direction the current would take them. There is no one ready or able to perform necropsies if bodies are found. And the US/NMFS/Ken Hollingshead rule says that if you can't prove it was the ship beyond any shadow of doubt, the status quo rules and the ship keeps blasting. Don't like it? Sue. Who do you think you are, son? We're the guvment!
Ever see flamingoes flying? What an improbable sight! Nothing can have a neck that long and crooked in front of legs that long and crooked. And both white and brown pelicans, (the birds that remind my daughter of my mom because of her great love for them) come flapping toward us just a foot off the water, and then when they glide, it is as close as possible to the waves, like their chest feathers and wingtip fingers are just lightly trailing in the water. Skimmers with their heads hanging down, ospreys struggling with silver fish, hundreds of frigate birds spiraling, and every hundred yards or so along the beach, tall irritable great blue herons standing like put-upon schoolmasters irked with the general intransigence of the world. Couldn't agree more.
Been thinking about the power of words and what they mean, how they define how we see the world. I have three friends trying, on a little scale or big, to change our use of a word. My friend Mac probably 10 years ago told me that he tried not to use the word "animal" because it had the immediate implication of "the others" instead of "us," and that it accentuated that phony separation. I decided he was right and now avoid the word. Elliott Katz, the gutsy director of In Defense of Animals (which once backed my successful trip to Japan to cut loose whales and dolphins caught in the drive fishery slaughter and destined for amusement parks), is working on getting people to stop calling the creatures they delight in sharing their houses with "pets" and replacing it with "companion animals" (which calls to mind a bumper sticker I saw a couple of months ago near Seattle that said "ALL MEN ARE ANIMALS, SOME JUST MAKE BETTER PETS"—which combines both words needing change). Then there is my Friday Harbor friend Jim Nollman with his campaign to get people to start calling sperm whales by their original and much nicer appellation: cachalot.
I need the help of your collective minds to invent a new powerful use of words—a new "meme." At the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and other important international fora where decisions are made that protect or doom species, the measuring stick by which harm is measured is whether or not the use of the animal or plant in question is a "sustainable use of a natural resource." So, our side (the side of good, diversity and Nature) is relegated to arguing whether or not the use is sustainable or not, which to me is like arguing about how exactly to divide the body—not about saving the life. We are playing on a field whose goalposts and rules are made by the wise-users, and using their definitions. Therefore even when we win it is at the margins. Where does one argue that the wild creatures of the world, are not resources at all but self-aware tribes worthy of protection for their own sake, not because their demise may mean ours someday? Seems to me the only things in Nature not considered resources (here to be used by humans) are those considered sacred.
So we need a different way to measure harm to wild creatures and their habitats which is centered on them not us and embraces their sacredness. Let's see, how about you can use that mahogany, or those caiman or whale sharks if you honor their culture, ask permission of any incursion, accept their advice and control our own numbers and activities on a sustainable basis.
I am now trying to decide what I do now in trying to defeat the Ewing. I am not sure if this diary will be interesting enough to all of you without a major showdown looming on the horizon. I will write at least one more diary entry as a culmination if I decide to stop reporting on a daily basis. The fight goes on. And on and on. Love to all.
Oh yeah. Major norte predicted for the coming week, which could both shut down the Ewing at a very good time and shuffle some bodies to the beach. So blow, blow Mariah blow.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 21
Executive Summary: Two dead turtles are turned into Semarnat. Research The Ewing bangs away. I goof off in Merida, waiting for my son to fly in. Tomorrow we leave for Campeche to check the coast north to Celestun for bodies. The ghoul patrol.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Wendell Berry, the farmer who writes so clearly it seems he is using a scalpel instead of a pen. Wendell Barry is one of the best spokesmen around for old time American wisdom, of smallness and the importance of the soil and the people who work it. Coincidentally, his cousin, Father Thomas Berry, is probably the foremost ecotheologian in the country, and my kid's godfather (This occurred when my wife wanted our kids baptized. I refused, not wanting anyone mouthing such blather over them such as being born into original sin. We needed a priest who was both a Catholic and a pagan. Father Berry blessed my kids out of the stream behind my house, addressing not only Jesus but the Father Sun and Mother Earth. A wonderfully peaceful man.).
Anyway, the quote is found in a book of essays by Wendell Barry called WHAT ARE PEOPLE FOR, I think in a chapter called A Poem of Difficult Hope. It goes something like, "the goal of protest that succeeds is more modest than changing the minds of everyone, it is to hold onto that within our hearts that dies from acquiescence."
Maybe it's because, in the fight to protect the wildlife of the world, we almost always lose the battles we are fighting, even if eventually we do sway enough minds globally to make a difference. But if the reason you volunteer, or work to make dogs and cats lives easier, or the forgotten old folks at the home, is for you, because it makes you feel better, then it doesn't matter if anyone else does it or even if your contribution goes unnoticed.
I have come to believe that the fight for the last free wild creatures on earth is the same fight for the last indigenous cultures and the last pure water and the last place where people can politically choose their own destiny, and the last place that you can breathe air right out of the sky and drink water right out of the river without it making you sick. I fight this fight so I don't die a little in my heart every time I surrender a little. Yeah, that ship is going on down there, but what can I do?
Okay. So the Ewing is being able to blast the bezesus out of the Yucatan coast with impunity (ask Agatha Christie—the sea is a great place to hide little murders). And I am foiled in my attempt to shut them down by getting so close to their boat either with my body in the water or in a boat flying a dive flag. So, did they win? Did I lose?
Yes. For sure. And no.
-Their study finally on the road to completion after a years delay.
-Information about the Chicxulub Crater.
-Worldwide bad publicity.
-The enmity of the entire Yucatan coast of 30,000 fishing families who are not only kept from going fishing right now in the 40 mile by 40 mile exclusion zone around the Ewing but must put up with a diminished catch for at least a while, with nary a by-your-leave from the US scientific establishment.
-A debt owed to the Mexican government for having handled this regional crisis with a heavy hand.
-Worldwide favorable new attention to the problem of intense sound hurting whales and fish.
-A 38 percent reduction in the amount of seismic pulses used by the Ewing from their original application (LDEO website).
-A curtailing of night work (demanded by the Mexican government).
-A year delay from two separate earlier wins blocking the cruise.
-The restriction of Ewing on board sonar from all the time to just when specifically needed (change pushed and won by lone sane LDEO scientist).
-A little bit of new pressure on Columbia University (boss of Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, owners of the Ewing), the National Science Foundation (funders of the Ewing) and the NMFS (US government regulators who protect sound generators instead of doing their job—which is to protect marine mammals, fish, and fishermen.)
-A further stitching together of a worldwide populist fabric that began for me working with labor to shut down the WTO in 1999, then a trip to Venezuela in 2003 for the first conference of campesinos, an indigenous people fighting globalization (hosted by President, and US bête noir Hugo Chavez), then the march against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in Miami of 2003 and finally this collaboration with poor fishing families to stop the Ewing.
-A much better understanding of what to look for in the next application to blast somewhere, especially in regards to the conditions under which a permit is pulled and an applicant is made to stop what he is doing.
To me, the moral of this story is that pressure works. Just never as much or as fast as we want.
Today I indulged in a little crowd and flower therapy. Walked to the market just before noon, probably at its loudest, busiest, peak of human chaos. Bought a little plastic bag of sliced up pink grapefruit with—you guessed it—hot chili pepper mixed with salt. Weird. But good. A little bag of pepitas. A splendid round avocado. A bunch of sweet onions. A bag of salt. One Roma tomato. Then I found a lady selling some kind of really sweet smelling white flowers that look a little like honeysuckle but aren't a vine. Then a half dozen of the brightest red gladiolas I could find along the whole row of flower sellers. Then there was this one old lady with just a tiny table sitting down close to the ground. She had clumps of gardenias for sale—one of my all-time favorites. I rushed home to my room in the Gran Hotel to find a vase for them before they got any droopier. But I couldn't help going through the main square.
The clown has come back to the square to perform, this time bringing a friend. Shouldn't really call him a clown because he looks so different than the standard American white faced and bug eyed exuberant and pushy clown that has always scared the piss out of me (If I am ever finally captured by the CIA/LDEO/NMFS/ Sea World/Office of Navy Intelligence/Monsanto/Knights of Templar/Trilateral Commission cabal of bad guys and tortured, they will bring in a clown squeaking pieces of Styrofoam on either side of my head strapped to the chair. I will immediately spill the beans and tell them that it was all Susan's idea and that I was just a patsy of animal rights extremists.).
But the guy who performs in the park is pint-sized, with a stuck-on nose that makes his swoop forward and up like Nixon's but more so, the big galoot pants with the shoulder straps, goofy big-toed boots and a little face paint. This time he was accompanied by a similarly dressed yokel who played the part of a whiny student supplicant. Every time the main guy would start his shtick, the student clown would interrupt with something stupid and need to be upbraided, or smacked with a folded up piece of cardboard that made a great WHACK. Then the student would get led to the edge of the roaring crowd by his ear with all the exasperation of a weary mom trying to control her rowdy kids for the umpteenth time. Even missing maybe half of the very fast colloquial Spanish, just the ridiculous body language had me shamelessly reduced to giggles right there in front of God and everyone.
Leaving the park, I see the tiny shoeshine man I have seen before. At night he sits in his own chair, head down, arms hugging himself against the chill, hands gripping withered biceps. During the warmth of the day, I find him still sitting in his own chair, long past worrying about business, fast asleep, head back, mouth agape, his skin stretched tight against his cheekbones and his knuckles, dark deeply creased shiny skin just like a gorilla's.
Those of you who have traveled to Mexico know that most of the trucks have names, often emblazoned in huge letters in silver across the top of the front windshield. My favorite so far is: "INOLVIDABLE AMOR." I believe this literally means "UNFORGETTABLE LOVE," but I prefer reading it as "UNAVOIDABLE LOVE."
My son Ben flies into Merida tonight (Lord willing), and we will take off in the morning in search of the great elephant (this time whale) graveyard (eddy) where all the things killed by the Ewing go to die. Of course, there probably is no such thing, most things would just die and sink. But maybe we can get the evidence we need. Sure am going to look.
I am going to keep going with the diary for a bit, although the definition of a "day" may become a bit looser and include a couple of days. I will end it either when I come home or when things get so placid and peaceful that I worry about boring you. Thanks for all the notes, good wishes, random kindnesses, blows toward Mexico to rock that damn boat, letters to Mr. Purdy and contributions to AWI.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 22
Merida, Celestun, Campeche, Celestun, Yucatan.
Executive Summary: The Merida norte moves in, strong enough to cause the Ewing to pull in their killer gear? Don't know. My son and I go looking for bodies, talking to fishermen. I've exhausted what I can do here. I'm going home to get ready for the next one.
Ben Jr. and I awake at dawn in Celestun to meet up with Hector and his barca rapida for a long trip along the coast. Like all lucky morning mariners, we walk under Ulysses' rosy fingers spreading across the baby blue sky. True to his word, even after I advanced $60 for the fuel, Hector is waiting for us on the beach, hands us a couple of life vests and we are off. Great little boats, fiberglass, long and narrow, the ones for tourists fitted up with a steel canopy frame and a tarp advertising Sol beer laced onto it to keep the sun from the pale arms and bald spots of delicate gringos. They get in gingerly holding their cameras high with promises of flamingoes, crocodiles and the ojo del agua, the eye of water where fresh water bubbles up into the mangrove swamp and colorful fish swim by, backlit by pure white sand. The fishermen use the same boats but without the canopies. They are already as brown and wrinkled as it is possible for human skin to get. Their complexion, I suspect, is the least of their concerns. Our morning mourning journey along the northwest corner of the Yucatan is an odd one in which I both hope to succeed and hope not to. We are looking for the bodies of sea turtles, whales, dolphins or fish left by the nights receding tide. The Research Vessel Maurice Ewing, the death star of our story, runs its explosive transects to the northeast of Celestun, around the corner of the Yucatan which we were about to search. If the Ewing killed anyone and fishermen reports include dolphins and turtles, then they might go west on the current and eddy around to this coast. Or go straight out into the gulf. Or just sink. Or maybe, miraculously, there were no large creatures anywhere around and the only ones that got pulverized were the ones that couldn't swim away on the bottom.
By now, most of you have probably heard about the recent mixed species stranding of whales on the coast of North Carolina that just happened to "coincide in time and space" with the testing of some unnamed Navy sonar. But it couldn't have been them, they say, because the whales stranded over 200 miles away from the test. Funny, that is the same thing that the Ewing said about five years ago when their was a mass stranding of beaked whales onto the Galapagos Islands right after their seismic sound bombing. The area off North Carolina, is the same place the Navy wants to put one of their two sacrifice areas for the testing of their word-shakingly important active sonar devices. This is a critically important place for the life of the Atlantic, where the Gulf Stream turns and mixes with the coastal shelf water, causing a lot of life to bloom. Big place for dolphins and migrating whales, even Northern Right Whales. And this is where they want to play with their sonar. The other area is in the Channel Islands of California, not exactly bereft of life either. AWI is just now gearing up for this fight. The first move will be to challenge the Environmental Impact Statement the Navy will try to get us to swallow.
We fly across the water in the barca rapida, sitting in those cheap white plastic yard chairs that have spread around the world, but these have their legs cut off and are tied, too loosely to the boat, so we bounce around a bit. We pass as close as we can to the beach without going aground and still stall out the outboard a few times. Clouds of pelicans, cormorants and terns explode upwards around us. Terns can just leap from the water directly into the air, but the cormorants and pelicans struggle, flapping hard and running as fast as their feet can move across the top of the water before they can launch and get a full wingfull of air on the downbeat. I ask their pardon for our intrusion. Just out of Celestun, around the corner from the Ewing, the birds are clearly fishing successfully. Pelicans soar with noble and aloof strokes until they spot a fish, whereupon they open their enormous long mouth with the weird baggy bottom, point it around the silver shape beneath the waves and just follow it down, collapsing all of an instant, neck awry, jabbing at an awkward angle, and slamming into surface like a ton of bricks. The terns spear the sea from such a height and speed that I wonder how such a little body with so little muscle can take it. Every time, when I catch the splash out of the corner of my eye without noticing the preamble plunge, I think in is a little whale blow, or the spurt of water, the "rooster tail" that comes up from the dorsal of a Dalls porpoise on the move. The birds aren't the only ones fishing. We pass clumps of men stringing nets out from the beach and then pulling them in hand over hand. Others are just coming into the shore when we leave, having been fishing all night. You can see their lights like a shiny necklace at night, every few degrees along the horizon from Celestun. Even though these men kill for a living, and its my job to protect the lives of sea creatures, I feel like I can relate to these men. Maybe its because my grandfather was a boat builder and my other grandfather was a guide to duck hunters and fishermen in Back Bay, Virginia. Maybe it is because I would choose a life of relative freedom of catching fish over the imprisonment of an office, or the servitude of the tourist industry. We stop and talk to them. Everyone has heard about the Ewing and my attempts to get out to the boat. Hector brags that I am the escudo humano. They shake my hand in thanks with gnarly paws toughened by passing hundreds of miles of net across their palms.
At meetings of the International Whaling Commission and the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species there is a great lie being pushed by those who want to keep uncontrolled their use of wildlife or the trees they live in (such as Disney, the pet trade, the lumber industry, Anhueser Busch, zoos, Japanese hanko stamp (ivory) makers, the trade in exotic medicines). The lie says that any attempt by the likes of folks like me to improve the lot of wildlife internationally is a form of cultural imperialism. My experience over the last six weeks with Mayan fishing families reminds me of the intense and personal love of diversity and nature that I have found before with indigenous folks. It is not a hands-off love. They see no contradiction between both loving and using. Loving the fish and killing it to eat. But at their core, it appears to me, lies an overriding biophylia, love of life. I believe that this point of view is our home- all people, where we belong and where we feel most at ease. In a position of daily adoration of the world. It seems to me, at the risk of offending my purist abolitionist friends, that we are missing a great opportunity globally to embrace subsistence farmers and fishermen as allies throughout the world in opposing the corporate industrial monster that is eating the world. If your desire is to decrease the suffering of creatures at the hands of mankind, the most screaming urgencies are those posed by massive, industrial operations: Smithfield farms replacing family pig farms that use straw for bedding with 500,000 pigs in huge buildings with concrete floors that get hosed into toxic lagoons; dragger fleets that pull massive rollers across the Alaskan ocean floor, destroying whatever lives there, Japanese logging operations that peel the trees like living skin from South Pacific islands; the grab for oil or the power from dams, no matter whose homes or fields or fish get in the way. The wise users at these meetings cry that, say, by stopping the killing of elephants for ivory we are taking food from the mouths of the poor. But increasingly, it is the poor, like the villagers in the Philippines taking tourists out to see whale sharks, that are profiting from the protection, the "non-lethal use" of the glamorous megafauna that they are lucky enough to live near. But my thought is that, at base, all people originally share an instinctive love for life, nature, this magical home we have been given. The idea of protecting it comes from their oldest remaining elders- not from outside. Au contraire, it is the Americanized Mexicans, who seem to have the least time or patience with giving respect either to the other beings they share the world with either two legged or four or finned.
The Distant Neighbors book I was reading about Mexico says that nowadays Mexico is uncomfortable because it has a new (Americanized) head grafted on a very old body of ancient tradition and beliefs. And that the key to whether Mexico will thrive as a vital and unique place will depend on how much it will be able to honor the old body, and the old sacred ways which are still the glue of the society. Tom Hayden (yes, that Tom Hayden) has a great book called the Lost Gospel of the Earth in which he shows how all of the world's major religions had their beginning as religions of the Earth. What we see now is the corruption of many of these into the protection of wealth and power. But there are lots of glimmerings of hope and the renaissance of the original religion, Animism, the belief that everything is alive. A few years ago a Christian Evangelist group called the Noah Project was formed to help protect the Endangered Species Act. Their premise was that the parable of Noah says that every creature was made by God and therefore every single one must be protected: that it is a sin for human beings to allow the disappearance of something we had no hand in making. Despite searching for hours, scrutinizing every rock and rolled up seaweed for signs of turtleness, Ben and Hector and I found nothing. Two days later, during a rainy noreaster now blasting the coast, I gave one last walk along the beach looking for one of my dead friends, Nope. I am frankly just as glad. I'm going home. I have covered this coast like a blanket for six weeks. The fishermen can look for bodies much better than I, and they would love to nail the Ewing as much as I would. The Port Captains have all been talked to, all the way south to Campeche. And there are lots more screaming crises pushing in at the door.
Two notes from frequent readers and friends—Bryn Barnard, amazing graphic artist, green propagandist and buddy from Friday Harbor sent this back about snapping shrimp: "They create bubbles that implode, a process called cavitation, the sudden collapse of gas bubbles in a liquid causes temperatures and pressure to soar inside the shrinking orbs. Under such extremes, the gas inside the bubbles momentarily incandesces and reaches temperatures as high as 20,000 degrees centigrade. They use snaps to fight rivals (take that), find mates(?) and even stun prey." And Jim Cummings of the excellent Acoustic Ecology Institute (check out www.acousticecology.org) sent in this about acoustic daylight: "Its not just that the turtle 'blocks' the static, but that all of the ambient noise bounces off everything (like light bounces off trees and hills and Frisbees) and offers and acoustic picture by way of the echoes. It is also known as 'ambient noise imaging."
I have been so overwhelmed by how far this diary has gone and how many people it has apparently touched. Thanks to all the teachers and their students that have found something in them to value. Thanks for Tom Munsey for sending it to the papers in Friday Harbor, Thanks for Susan of the Animal Welfare Institute for receiving the first blush, editing it only for major spelling errors and major gaffs, Peggy Sue and Janet for bucking me up when I needed it, Edie for giving me the voice of a friend over so many miles, Ann for keeping a safe place for the kids, my kids for their forbearance at my perpetual absence, thanks to my Mexican colleagues Rosario Sosa Parra in Merida, Araceli Rodriguez in Cancun and Homero and Betty Aridjes in Mexico City. Thanks for those able to send, or pledge, the bucks that rented the cars and boats and printed up the leaflets. Goodbye coway birds that come screeching into the little park by my hotel every evening. Goodbye to the drummer kids and the clowns. Goodbye to the old ladies selling oranges will chili powder. Goodbye to the old shriveled man sitting in his own shoeshine chair. Goodbye Yucatan clouds that look like those in the opening credits of the Simpsons. Goodbye open faced, old soul fishermen. Goodbye, I hope, perpetual stomach ache. Goodbye Yucatan. Goodbye moon. Hello to the soft and rainy San Juan Islands, where family and dog and friends and building project awaits. Based on the reception of this series of diary entrees, I intend to do it again the next campaign. Those interested can keep in touch with me through the Animal Welfare Institute.
Hasta la Victoria Siempre. Or, more likely, until the next fight.
This campaign has been dedicated to my friend Yolanda Alaniz, longtime champion of the ocean creatures of Mexico. Long may she shine.
Love and Revolution,
Yucatan Diary Postscript
Okay folks, just one more. I felt like I left a few loose ends with the 22nd diary entry. I promise after this I will not inveigle myself into your email box until the next adventure. Twenty three is a better number to end on, anyway.
A pilgrim journeyed far to meet a Zen master. When he arrived, he saw a strange scene. The old master was standing in a shallow river trying to rescue a scorpion that had fallen into the water. The master would pick up the scorpion, who would sting him. The master would jerk his hand back and the scorpion would fall back into the water. Whereupon the master would pick him up again and be stung again. When the scorpion was finally safely to shore, the pilgrim asked the master why he kept picking up the scorpion when it kept stinging him. The master said, "Because it is in my nature to try to rescue, and it is in the scorpion's nature to sting when frightened."
The Battle of the Ewing in the Yucatan: In a Nutshell.
The story of trying to prevent the RV Maurice Ewing from blasting the Yucatan coast actually began in late 2003, when I received an email about the "Incidental Harassment Authorization" applied for by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) for the Ewing cruise. Even though the email said that "small numbers" of marine mammals were involved, I requested a copy of the 100-page document and was floored by the sheer numbers of creatures involved—thousands of whales and dolphins that the LDEO was requesting to "take" through harassment.
When I found out that the Mexican government had approved the seismic study based on just a few pages of information, and lacking the list of creatures LDEO had asked permission to "take", I quickly forwarded the US application to the Mexican embassy in Washington. They were not amused. When the Ewing showed up in Progreso to begin their cruise last year they were boarded by the Federales and told to take a hike. The reasons given by the Mexican environmental agency Semarnat sounded familiar: the study could not be justified due to the harm it would cause the sea life, the ship had been involved in causing whale deaths already in Mexican waters, and that the entire Mexican coastal waters had been declared a sanctuary for great whales.
Then in June 2004, the project reared its ugly head again in two day back-to-back hearings in Merida on both the Ewing permit and one for Pemex (the Mexican national oil company) for seismic testing at another site. Working with my Mexican colleague Araceli Rodriguez and some of the heads of the fishermen's unions, I sent down a bunch of studies done over the last 30 years that show that seismic airguns damage fish and fisheries. The government hearing administrator asked to see these documents in the night between the two hearings. After reading them he declared the next day that both permits had been rejected.
I found out in December that the project had been propped up again and had been approved by the Mexican government after partnering with scientists from UNAM, the Mexican National University. We scrambled to head it off through government agencies or by suing the NMFS, but to no avail (On the last point—the permit that NMFS granted LDEO for the cruise is an IHA, an incidental harassment authorization which is a quickie short form only usable when there is absolutely no possibility of the research project causing severe injury or death. That is just impossible to claim in cases such as this when emitting pulses of 255 decibels.). I got ready to fly to Merida to engage in a peaceful direct action to stop the ship—the last resort.
The idea was simple. To get into the water near the ship to force them to turn off the seismic airguns unless they wanted to be responsible for my death. I had organized volunteers to join me in just such an effort in February of 1998 to oppose a Navy test of Low Frequency Active Sonar on whales in Hawaii. That time, we were not prevented from going to sea and were able to shut down about half of the broadcasts attempted over a month of tests. As it is not illegal to go swimming at sea and the Ewing claimed that the device is harmless, I couldn't see how I could be stopped.
Once in Merida, I worked with graphic artist Bryn Barnard to quickly put together a flyer in Spanish and English warning about the arrival of the Ewing. In the couple of weeks before the Ewing arrived I covered the coast with these, hitting every fishing village along the north Yucatan rim to huge support from the locals. The hubbub that ensued caused the issue to be in the newspapers and television for weeks and delayed the Ewing from starting even after it was reported waiting off Progreso. A big wind from the north also helped.
When the ship arrived, I contracted with Mexican fishermen Manuel Jimenez to take some press and me out in his boat to shadow the Ewing. We met with the Port Captain and explained what we had in mind and he saw no problem. All we would need to do is give him the names of everyone going. The very day before we were to go out, and the day the Ewing started up their big guns, he rescinded the permission, saying that we needed a boat licensed to take out estrangeros, foreigners, that a fishing boat wouldn't do.
So I spent about a week finding such a beast along with a willing skipper and crew. I found all in Holbox and contracted them to come down and connect with me and the press in Puerto Telchac on January 28. Once there, they were told to wait for permission from the Port Captain before leaving early the next morning. Hours later they were called before the representative of the Progreso Port Captain and told that they would never receive permission to take me out because a 40 by 40 mile exclusion zone had been imposed to protect the Ewing. Plus they were told that they would not be able to ply their trade and take out tourists on their boat at all until the Ewing leaves on February 20. At that point I realized that, unless I was willing to jeopardize both the boat and the freedom of those willing to take me out, that I was shut down in my plan to get into the water by the Ewing.
Over the next week, after getting reports of dead fish, turtles and dolphins floating on the tide to the west of the Ewing, I spent hours searching the beaches to the west and south and talking to fishermen and Port Captains all along. They are now primed to report any more bodies (four turtles have been found to date since the Ewing arrived) found on the beaches to both my Mexican animal protection colleagues and the government agencies responsible. Unfortunately, these agencies are Semarnat and Profepa, the two responsible for signing the permission for the Ewing to work.
With all of that in place, and unable to get out to the Ewing, I decided that I might as well be working from home than from Merida. I had done every single thing that I could think of to stop this test for over a year. It was time to fight like water again, slide sideways and tackle them in other ways.
It is an endless debate among activists as to what method is most effective to bring about change. To me, we need them all, whatever direction each person feels compelled to pursue. Personally, after all polite appeals, governmental procedural methods and legal challenges are exhausted, the only way I know is to put myself as close as possible to the point of injury and try to get the story out.
In this campaign, at one point I had a clear strategic choice: do I tip my hand and say what I am planning to do in order to get more widespread coverage but also allow them time to figure out a way to stop me? Or do I just try to get out there without telling the press, knowing that the Ewing itself already knew what I was up to? I decided to announce that I planned to enter the water as a human shield. And sure enough, that is what was compelling to the reporters. I have found this before. The press is generally not interested in advocacy issues; they want the red meat of confrontation. If someone might die (me), all the better. For the first time that I am aware of, controversy over an imminent seismic cruise went worldwide on the mainstream media.
So far in trying to stop war, the wearing of fur, the capture and confinement of dolphins, the extension of corporate control over the world through globalization, the killing of harp seals and whales, the destruction of ancient trees, the abuse of creatures in zoos, circuses and aquariums, the sonic blasting of whales and the construction of nuclear power plants, I have lobbied, spoken at hearings ad nauseum, marched, sat-in, taken over the offices of Episcopal bishops and aquarium directors, hung banners above fifth avenue in New York, climbed flag poles dressed as Zorro, rappelled off the roof of the Spokane arena to protest Ringling Brothers Circus, dressed up as clowns with legendary animal rights prankster Bob Chorush and my kids to infiltrate the Shriner's circus, deployed 240 sea turtle costumes onto people and helped shut down the WTO in Seattle in 1999 and 360 dolphin costumes at WTO in 2003, locked myself onto the railing at Sea World to play a tape of Corky's family to her, appeared on Good Morning America debating Sea World, faced 6 years to life for saving seals in Canada, been beaten by cops at Ontario Marineland while peacefully leading a demonstration, cut loose captive dolphins and whales at night, been gassed to unconsciousness, been shot at and punched, been arrested over a dozen times protecting wildlife, slept in a tree for three days and nights and jumped in front of a sonar ship to stop its blasting of whales.
Obviously, I will shamelessly pursue any stupid gimmick if I think it might help reduce the amount of suffering we cause. But after all this, I confess that I do not know how to stop big bad things. I don't argue that direct action is the best way. It just is, at one point, the only way left. I believe in it personally as a way to refuse to acquiesce to hopelessness in watching our living magical world be pummeled into nothingness and to feel like there is not a single thing we can do about it.
I have not and will not give up on stopping the Ewing on this and future cruises, as well as all other seismic and active sonar ships. But it will be a long-term tall order, like fighting the waging of war and the subjugation of some human beings to others. In trying to regulate the intentional emission of very loud sounds into the ocean we are stepping on the best heeled and most influential industries in the world: the military industrial complex, the petroleum companies and the American scientific establishment that serves the first two. The only force stronger is the combined power of the global civil society: us.
Now AWI is going to follow the money and take the fight directly to Columbia University, the National Science Foundation and the NMFS. We are also going to the United Nations with our international anti-ocean noise colleagues to petition for worldwide restrictions on the deliberate injection of intense sound into the oceans.
If anyone has any idea of an approach that I have missed, I am all ears. Better yet, you do it and I will help you.
Thanks so much to all of you who stayed with me during this campaign. It is just one chapter in a very long book. This diary was originally intended for about a dozen friends also working on this issue and it snowballed into reaching hundreds. Your kindness and support has meant everything to me.
With the blessings of the gods that I am allowed a little while longer in this garden, and the help of those who feel as I do, I will keep on doing this stuff, just because it is my nature to do so.
Love and Revolution,