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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

Choose Life or Death?

ECUADOR | Sunday, 22 July 2012 | Views [1146]

Here's the giant stingray still alive on the beach. A kid was checking it out as it desperately tried to breath.

Here's the giant stingray still alive on the beach. A kid was checking it out as it desperately tried to breath.

Today was a day of extreme dichotomy, two polar opposites with a similar goal, yet the road could not be more different.

The day started like most days with tiburones at the fish market.  Two volunteers had the early shift from 6:30 am to 7:30 am, while another volunteer, D, and I had the late shift from 7:30 to 9 am.  Saturdays are very busy at the market; fishermen usually go out to fish on Thursdays and return with boatloads of fish on Saturdays.  By the time I arrived, the first shift volunteers had already counted over 30 hammerhead sharks, a handful of other types of sharks, and one ray.  D and I scoured the boats that newly came to shore, finding mostly large fishes and plenty of squids (one fish, an el dorado, was over 1m long and we overheard the price was US$50, a large sum at the market).  We also stealthily monitored one particular buyer who stood out -- he was clean cut, always wore long jeans with white rubber boots, a collared shirt, and a jacket; none of the fishermen, market workers nor buyers had the "polish" look that he had.  "Shark man", as we nicknamed him, always bought sharks and large fish such as marlins, and his truck was always parked close to the scale with the doors to the back closed, while all other trucks would have their doors opened, ready to receive the fish; we figured the reason was because he knew he had something to hide.  In addition, I kept an eye on Señor Sushi, the nickname given to the butcher who always handled the cutting of large sharks and rays (this is the same butcher mentioned in my earlier story, Cementerio de los tiburones, in which I praised his "zen-like" knife skills and thought he'd make a great sushi chef).  For some reason, perhaps because he realized he was being watched and didn't want to be photographed, or truly had something to hide, Señor Sushi had recently started cutting rays inside the fishing boat instead of at his butcher table; one reason may be because (sadly) the rays were so large, they wouldn't fit on his table, and he only cut the fishes on the ground if they were on top of a tarp (else too much sand would get on the flesh).  In fact, one morning I followed him as he boarded a fishing boat with knives in hand, and as he sharpened his knives, the boat pushed away from shore and sailed into the harbor, so I couldn't even get close to see what he was cutting.  Now why would that happen unless there was something to hide!?

After about an hour and only a few more sharks counted, I noticed Señor Sushi was inside a fishing boat, sharpening his knives.  I stayed close but discretely behind another boat, and minutes later, a transport person brought his crate and pieces of rays were loaded into it.  I could not even confirm my count of rays because they were very much cut up; the rays could have been cut in half, in quarters, or more if very large.  As I tried to guess if the ray pieces were halves or quarters, I noticed a taut, not loose, fishing wire close to that boat.  I walked around the boat I was "hiding" behind, moved closer, and could not believe my eyes; the end of the wire was attached to a huge stingray, with a disc span of about 2m; it was the same species as the ones being hacked inside the boat, and IT WAS STILL ALIVE!  I noticed a slight rise and fall of the ray's front-center near its eye sockets as it desperately tried to breathe.  The ray was lying on the beach but close to the water, so waves were rushing onto it,  somewhat "hiding" it from view.  Now I got really close and started taking photos.  Others also noticed and began to surround it; kids approached and taunted it, pulling on the wire, placing one foot on top while posing; curious visitors and tourists took photos (almost daily a few tourists visit the fish market in the early hours to take photos); a few men walked by and kicked it slightly.  I simply could not believe the ray was alive, yet the fisherman did not bother to put it out of its misery, the least he could do; furthermore, considering his boat had no other fish but rays, he was for sure targeting them.

A few moments later, Señor Sushi approached while sharpening his knife.  He cut two slits towards the front near the eyes and a few more to both sides, as blood seeped out from below and mixed with the ocean water; I realized he was not cutting it into pieces but rather cutting slits in places so the ray could be lifted and put into a truck, which has been backed in front of the ray.  He then stabbed the knife through the center and made a cut down the center, followed by two more cuts by the eyes.  I thought for sure the center stab would finally terminate the ray, yet it continued to breathe; a kid lifted its tail for fun, and the ray then actually lifted its tail on its own, scaring the kid away.  Another man then came and tied a rope through both eye sockets to make a handle, and a few others came over to help lift it into the truck.  It took six grown men to finally lift, push, and shove the dying ray into the back of the truck, which it completely filled; in its final act, the ray released its remaining fluids as the men tried to close the doors of the truck, splashing everyone around (I hoped it was urine!)  I captured this entire act on video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omn-Qjs0jGU&feature=youtu.be), pushing a few people out of the way when they came into my view (thus my arm made a few appearances as I grabbed their shoulder to move them away).

With the "viewing" and drama over, D and I returned to the house.  I was quite distraught and it was not yet 9:30 am!  Luckily, Ecoclub was to be cancelled today; instead, we were to spend the day at Playa Playita with a group of students from the University in Guayaquil, whose professor took them on a "weekend trip" here (Puerto Lopez is a four-hour bus ride away) to profile Playita as part of the coursework.  By 10 am, we were on the bus to Playita, a mere 5-minute ride away.

Playita is a beach closed to the public due to its active turtle population, but Equilibrio Azul volunteers are allowed there to patrol it for turtle nesting and poaching activities.  This class was given permission after submitting an application with an explanation of the objective.  It was funny to see these "city" kids in the "country" (Guayaguil is the largest city in Ecuador in terms of population); they wore fancy sandals, carried pretty yet not functional backpacks, and were constantly tapping away on their Blackberry or iPhone, while us Puerto Lopez "beach bumpkins" had on tanks and shorts and barely-brushed hair (but we're tanned!)  Once on the beach, the professor explained how the profiling would be done, and divided the students into four groups to cover a different part of the beach.  Just as we were about to begin the first exercise, we noticed two whale-watching boats not too distant in the ocean, and SPLASH!  A whale blew water out of its blowhole near them!  We all stopped to watch; another splash, and then we saw the whale flipped its tail in the air and splashed it a few times onto the ocean's surface, as though it was waving to the boats.  I knew that was a behavior dolphins sometimes did (learned from my ocean safari experience in Mozambique), but didn't know whales did the same, and I just witnessed it.  We couldn't believe our luck, a free show from the beach (a whale watching excursion normally costs US$15-20).  A third boat came, a fourth boat, and then a fifth; through it all, the same whale (there were actually at least two whales but not sure if both were breaching or only one) repeatedly breached, waved its tail, and put on a show, instead of diving down like most other whales would if too many boats were near (it was probably a juvenile whale having too much fun).  At one point, the boats and the whales were within 300m from Playita's shoreline, thus we really had good seats.  After what seemed like an hour but really just 15 minutes, three of the boats sailed away while two continued to follow the whales, who swam out and farther south and finally out of our view.  Wow, what a treat!

We ended up spending 7 hours at the beach; the profile exercises were repeated every 1.5 hours to measure the change in current and tide.  Fortunately the sun shown for a few hours midday, a rare occurrence during the winter months here; unfortunately, the clouds returned by the afternoon, and it became cool, no fun when we were just sitting on the beach waiting for time to pass.  As I sat waiting, many thoughts crossed my mind about the day.  It started pretty awful with the murder of the ray, but brightened considerably with the lively whales.  It was such a dichotomy:  on one end, rays are killed in one industry (fishing) which would generate limited income for the fishermen, butcher, fishmonger, restaurants, fish markets, and whatever other parties are involved in that trade, but would ultimately cause the extinction of rays (rays simply do not reproduce quickly enough to replenish the numbers being hunted and killed); on the other end, humpback whales are living freely in the ocean, migrating as nature intended, which created a robust whale-watching market in Puerto Lopez and contributed to its tourism, thus generating numerous jobs and income (tour companies, boat captains, bars, restaurants, lodging, public transportation).  With a dead ray, the income generated is limited; with a live whale, income may be generated daily, monthly, annually, etc., as long as it's alive and can do what nature intends.  Seems like one path is a dead-end and the other is open-ended, so why are many people so short-sighted???

We finished close to 6 pm and began to head back to Puerto Lopez.  As if someone knew I could use another "ray of hope", one last (albeit small) thing happened that made me smile.  We (only the local Equilibrio Azul coordinator and I stayed with the students the whole day) and the students started walking on the side of the road towards Puerto Lopez, hoping to catch a ride at some point (the road is the highway that runs along the coast).  There are only four ways to get from Playita to Puerto Lopez:  wait for a bus (which may not stop), wait for a taxi, hitchhike (many pick-up trucks stop for passengers for a free or cheap lift, it's common and safe), or walk.  First came a taxi, which could only take 3 passengers, so three of the female students got in.  We walked farther and a SUV with two passengers stopped next; when the SUV pulled away, only the five male students remained with us; they had put the remaining gals into the free lift while they stayed behind.  Since being in Ecuador, I heard that this is a male-dominated country, so it made me smile to observe this younger generation perhaps slowly bucking the trend and showing that even chivalry can exist here!  We walked for another few minutes, and as though angels heard our prayers, two vacant taxis came from the opposite direction, and they turned around to pick us up; one of them even took four passengers instead of the usual three, with two sitting in the luggage rack.  What started as a dreadful day ended alright after all, there are glimmers of hope in the world.

Tags: fishing, guayaquil, humpback whale, playita, profile, senor sushi, shark man, stingray, tourism, university



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