Blog | Oceana USA

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.

There is one very big thing to learn: a boat is a self contained world. Detached from land, you realize how completely your day to day life is enmeshed in the infrastructure of civilization -- sewage system, water pipes, power grid. Here there is no handle to turn to bring an endless rush of fresh water, no button to push to whisk away your waste. The only resources available are what we brought with us; and what we produce is also ours to manage, at least until we get back to land. There is limited water, limited power, limited food. So we wash dishes with salt water and rinse them, only when necessary, with a little spurt of fresh water pumped from the reservoir tanks. When the sun goes down the boat is dark; if you need a light, you use the smallest light possible, and for as short a time as you can. Trash is separated: anything that can be recycled is kept on board to eventually be brought back to land, organic waste is offered to the fish once we are very far from shore.

Everything on this boat is attended to - every rope, every screw, every piece of detritus - everything has its role, and there is a sense of empowerment and independence in taking this precise universe to sea. Maybe it's the juxtaposition - absolute control over a limited system in the midst of endless water and wind, irrevocably beyond any control - that is so exhilarating.

If details aboard the Ranger are important, I'm learning, details around us are even more so. We keep a 24 hour watch to scan the horizon for storm clouds, other ships, light or smoke signals - anything. The day is divided into eight 3 hour periods. Everyone watches for 3 hours in the morning and 3 at night. My watch, today, was 6 to 9 AM. Marcela, a journalist from MarViva, woke me and 2 other watchmates when her team had valiantly completed the 3 to 6 AM shift, and we climbed on deck to a rising sun. Early in the morning we pass a massive Cosco container ship -- after open ocean in every direction, sharing the water with another boat makes things feel crowded -- and just a few minutes ago a booby flew by, but otherwise the day has been completely calm and the ocean all ours.

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.

I knew what the Ranger looked like -- I'd seen pictures -- but seeing pictures is nothing like seeing this boat in the ocean. She is so very light. It looks like she sits on the water, not in it, and she flies over it like a skater over ice. The two pontoons just barely cut the water. She is elegant. She's gorgeous. I don't know all that much about boats but I am completely enamored.

And the crew! The group is an eclectic mix of professional biologists, divers, videographers, and professional sailors. They are all wonderful. They came ashore exhausted but excited, gregarious, welcoming to us new folk and redolent of weeks at sea. The always generous MarViva staff offered showers and laundry.

That was yesterday. I'm writing on Wednesday morning. We are packing today, testing communications technology, restocking the boat and generally preparing for a week-long trip to Cocos. Getting there is a two-night, one-day (~ 36 hours) proposition; the sea, apparently, is usually rough. We'll be accompanied by one of the MarViva fleet. I'm sure that all this afternoon we will be zipping around in Golfito making last-minute arrangements, and then at 7 pm, in the early dusk, we'll be off.

I am am generally concerned about healthy eating and am also a woman of childbearing age (not that I plan on having children any time soon). February is Heart Health month and I know that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are healthy for my heart. So I went to the American Heart Association's (AHA's) Web site to see what they had to say about healthy eating.

According to the AHA, I should be eating fatty fish at least twice a week. And they helpfully list fatty fish like albacore tuna and mackerel among its list of recommended fish.

BUT WAIT! If I followed the AHA's advice, I would be consuming dangerous amounts of mercury.The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency specifically recommend in their consumer advisory that I should limit my intake of all fish to two meals a week, and that if I eat albacore tuna, I should only eat one meal of it a week. The AHA recommendation completely omits this advice found in the government's consumer advisory, as well as the warning that women of childbearing age and children should not eat swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish or shark at all.

In fact, some fish have so much mercury, that CBS recently reported on a Finnish study (published oddly enough in an AHA journal) that showed that eating fish with high levels of mercury can counteract the benefits, and in some cases, actually increase the risk of heart disease and heart attacks.

The public has the right to know the full story. We should know how best to protect our hearts, which includes knowing which fish to avoid because of high levels of mercury and how much fish we should really be eating. Take action! Talk to your grocer about informing the public of the FDA/EPA consumer advisory.

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.

a Golfito resident pulls his lancha ashore

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.

Then the Company left. Rising tariffs in Costa Rica and worker unrest in Golfito made the operation more trouble that it was worth in profits. Golfito was overtaken and overwhelmed by unemployment and other attendant plagues -- prostitution, drug addiction, poverty. In an attempt to revive the town, the Costa Rican government recently built an enormous duty-free shopping mall here -- el deposito -- to attract domestic tourism. Visitors are required to spend the night. To some degree it has worked; the thing is a concrete-walled, barb-wire fenced monstrosity, but on weekends the many little hotels around town are full.

There are other reasons that things are looking up for Golfito. It is a sportfishing destination of growing popularity. There are two or three ritzy marinas on the waterfront, a handful of luxury yachts resting in the bay, and on any given evening small groups of wealthy foreign expats sipping cocktails in one of the fancy marina bars. Come day they go fishing for sailfish, marlin, and other big beauties -- for $300-700 you can arrange a day-long trip.

Equally if not more encouraging, the Central American ocean conservation group MarViva has its operations base here. MarViva was created (Xavier Pastor, Carlos Perez, Maribel Lopez and Eduardo de Ana (Guayo) -- now with Oceana -- led the effort!) in 2002 to enforce protection of the Eastern Pacific Marine Conservation Corridor, which includes the waters around a string of five islands off the Pacific coast of Central America. A few hundred miles directly out to sea from here is Cocos Island, the marine pride of Costa Rica, one of the richest biodiversity hotspots on earth, and the next destination of the Oceana Ranger. More on Cocos in the next update.

It begins to rain as Sandy gets the satphone working

With tourist arrivals and awareness of Golfito's unique ecological bounty both rising, it seems likely that the town will not remain remote and unknown for long. There are rumors of new airport construction and the installation of a mega-marina. The difficult thing will be for the town to grow and thrive without sacrificing the abundance and quality of the marine life that makes it so special. In the meantime, Golfito is a strange and beautiful place -- a bundle of tin-roofed houses by the bay, backed by jungle, fifty foot yachts moored next to man-powered canoes.

As regards the Ranger expedition, preparations for the boat are underway. We are lucky to have secured some incredible technology, including a satellite system that will hopefully let me transmit these updates at sea, and I spent a long afternoon yesterday trying to get the thing to work -- which, thanks to very patient support from Oceana's own IT whiz, Beth White, and an obliging gentleman at the satellite phone store, we did. So presuming we can replicate the conditions of the MarViva parking lot aboard a moving vessel in the middle of the ocean, all will be well.