Science has long known the influence of the Moon on our oceans; the rise and fall of tides, the constant pull of water against an ever-resisting planet. But what does science know of the pull of men to the sea? Is it Physics, Astronomy, or something more? For the fishermen of Vieques the connection is as strong as their bloodlines and as meaningful as their lives. Family, fraternity and nature cycle through them in many ways.
It’s easy to believe, as you sip your coffee in the morning sun, that the day has just begun, and all that is to happen on La Isla Nena lies ahead. But you would be wrong. North shore and south shore fishermen loaded their boats before the sun was up, seeking the bounty you will be served in restaurants that very evening. They’ve been at work for five or six hours; some floating on the surface in the rising heat, some skimming the ocean floor as eighty feet of water presses down. They are at work, but they are also happy. It is a special world they live in.
Marcos Calzada has striking blue eyes filled with a constant laughter. He learned to swim, snorkel and spear fish from his dad and started deep diving at 12 years old. When he dives he is attached by rope to a buoy floating on the surface of the water that his partner in the boat, Arizok Melendez, pays careful attention to. With Marcos 80 feet below, it is Arizok’s job as boyero to fight off boredom, fatigue and weather conditions – distractions that could avert his attention from the buoy and his partner below.
Marcos speaks of a day of diving many years ago when a storm rolled in. His watcher at the time lost sight of the buoy as heavy rain obscured the ocean. When Marcos finally surfaced, the weather had cleared a bit and he could see the boat about four miles away, too far to be heard. Word got back to the pier and other fishermen went out to search for him. Marcos swam for 24 hours. In the dark he used the stars and the lights from the shore to navigate. When asked where he came to shore he laughs and says, “Right back here where I started from!”
Today, while diving and searching the ocean floor for conch, Marcos felt an earthquake tremor. He could hear the vibration in the water and feel the ocean floor tremble, a feeling he remembers from the days when the Navy shook the island with falling ordnance. He speaks of the memory with wonderment, subtly aware of how unique it is.
He has a deep respect for the ocean taught to him by his dad. His father was waiting for him at the pier to buy Conch to send to his sister in Fajardo. Marcos jokingly said he was “shipping it priority mail,” which meant running it to the ferry leaving in ten minutes. Marcos has 4 daughters, three sons and 14 grandchildren. His children don’t want to fish for a living. “It is all changing,” he says, with a sense of uncertainty. “The fishermen are all getting older and many of the younger generation do not want to fish.”
But some do. The Ventura family is a multi-generational family of fishermen and many of them still make their living in the water. Pumba Ventura, a single father raising three children, sits with his daughter Prieta at the pier. She is still in her school uniform as she watches the other fishermen weigh their catch. Pumba calls the sea “their other school”. “I am still learning things about the ocean,” he says, with quiet modesty. “My father taught me to never be afraid of the ocean but to never disrespect it. The wind, the currents, the seasons. It is a long process to teach about fishing because you will never have two days of fishing that are the same. Everyday…,” he pauses to find the words, “…you just try to pass on what you learn. Tomorrow will be different.” Two more boats return from the day’s trip and it’s a family reunion on the dock; Father and Uncle in one boat, his two sons in another.
Brothers Pawao Cruz and Omar Cruz fish every day with the same crew in the boat Eira captained by Sidon Colon. The two brothers learned to fish with their father Tumby, who now fishes with another crew. They all used to fish together but the brothers formed their own crew. “Our company,” Pawao jokes. Today they unload 56 lbs. of lobster and some large grouper. One of the lobsters is enormous, and all of the fishermen on the dock take bets on the weight. The best guess is 7.5 lbs. It’s 8. Omar and Pawao dove to 80 feet three times since 5:30am.
In a time of increased information and ever faster technology the world of the Vieques fishermen moves at nature’s pace. Their simple occupation, a blend of biology and behavior, reveals a deeply lived ritual that still determines their path. It has continued for generations, and perhaps, for many more. In their minds the future is uncertain, but the present is clear. This is what they do; what they must do. When they return from the sea they are tired but they are jovial. They have full boats, they have stories to tell and they are safe back on land once again. They are the fishermen of Vieques.