Unmapped
Issue 2

Alacranes: a claim to the sea

By David Biller

Some believed rising sea levels swallowed Isla Bermeja. Others held fast to the claim that the CIA unceremoniously vaporized it with precision bombing. Still others said the island never existed to begin with, and that its depiction on old maps is as much representative of land as an adjacent stain of dark rum on the same parchment.

But no one had ever seen Bermeja, and it was wiped off maps long ago. As such, only few people knew of its supposed existence, and then only because of the riches to which it could potentially grant access. If found, Bermeja would be Mexico’s northwesternmost island on the Yucatán peninsula’s continental shelf, thus extending its claim to the deepwater Gulf of Mexico and the valuable oil it contains.

In the wake of a battle waged over oil sovereignty in the halls of Congress and the streets of Mexico City in 2008, the Lower House's Marine Commission wanted to put the Bermeja issue to bed. It commissioned a study to determine, once and for all, if Bermeja actually existed. If not, the desolate Alacranes reef, a national park located 160km east, would stand as the true reference point for Mexico’s claim to the Gulf.

Finding Alacranes - which means scorpions in Spanish - was never difficult. Rather, ships running aground on the reef has all too often been a problem. It is the Gulf’s largest reef system, covering 300km2, though its five islands make up only 1/500th of the vast expanse. In one of the first recorded shipwrecks, a tropical storm slammed a Spanish caravel into the reef. With their tongues swollen from dehydration, the 47 survivors drank the blood of sea turtles and seabirds to quench their thirst, but continued to perish until they finally found water. Indeed, it was Alacranes’ proven ability to drain the life from men – not its geographical resemblance to the curved arc of a scorpion’s tail - that gave birth to its name.

If Alacranes was a deathtrap to some, it has also been a refuge for others. Sailors loyal to the Spanish crown and pirates alike flocked to its calmer waters when bad weather surged. Deep-sea fishermen continue to seek shelter here and drop anchor alongside the lobstermen who typically fish these waters. Sharing stories, playing dominoes, and tattooing one another serves to kill time as they wait out the storm. And then it’s back to work.

Located 140km from the closest mainland shore, the reef is pristine and features biodiversity still not fully catalogued. The most recent survey of Alacranes’ fauna turned up an 80 additional species (29 percent), thus highlighting how much remains to be discovered.

This was the Alacranes I wished to visit: an actual place made up of stories and people, and a reef with a wealth of wildlife and beauty. I wanted to understand Alacranes beyond its role as a mere marker for the location of a border.

The kitchen of the Golfo-1

One of the lobster cooperatives agreed to provide me passage to Alacranes, and we set a midnight rendezvous on a shadowy dock in port city Progreso. With the name on its stern all but faded away, I missed the ship on my first pass; it looked barely suitable to float while tied to its moorings, much less make the ten-hour voyage. That said, after boarding I was instantly enamoured with its squalor: bugs crawling along the grimy edges, stains of age like liver spots, and a dingy kitchen floor where the captain’s son stretched out for the night.

The boat pitched on the open ocean, preventing all but fitful sleep and sea-stirred dreams. When I woke, Alacranes’ red and white-striped lighthouse was within sight on Isla Pérez, a tiny strip of sand amidst a spectrum of blues. Hundreds of birds hovered on thermals above an oasis of calm. It is the only island in Alacranes with any human presence whatsoever. Even here, the only footprints likely to be found along the arc of white coral sand are those left by the birds, unless the brigade of marines has just gone for a sunset run.

Alacranes is an outpost, and the presence of the nation’s navy ensures its claim to marine territory. Still, with Bermeja lost, Alacranes is viewed as an unfortunate surrogate to bear the country’s boundary marker. But by setting sights on oil wealth located far offshore, the country is overlooking the riches right below the water’s surface.

*

The DJ on AM810 chattered in Maya and tropical dance music came lightly through the ship’s speaker. Men stood around the deck shirtless, tanned brown, smiles all around. A late afternoon breeze blew as a frosted bottle of cheap vodka filled giant cups loaded with ice from the hold below. Spent limes gradually covered the plastic tablecloth. After the long trip from Progreso, the Golfo-1 had arrived at Alacranes and would spend fifteen days searching the reef for lobster and grouper. At dawn the fishermen would go about filling diesel tanks for their outboard motors, but for now it was time to relax. Boys read comics books or just hung to the side to let their fathers enjoy this moment.

Most Alacranes lobstermen speak a mixture of Spanish and Maya, and have the same unlikely origin: a small jungle village called Timucuy located one and a half hours from the coast. Decades ago, some Timucuy men went to the ocean in the hopes of pulling from its depths a better life and found their way onto boats that fished Alacranes. They returned, recruited able-bodied boys to come along and taught them how to dive for lobster. The captain of the vessel, Mario Pooel – or, as he’s known onboard, Caballo (Horse) – was just fifteen years old when a ship's captain, using the stars to navigate, brought him on what was then a more than 24-hour voyage to the reef. He had not been told of Alacranes’ beauty; all he knew was that there was work for him there and he sprung at the opportunity, as did the other boys. Those boys are now men, with boys of their own.

Caballo

Caballo had his son onboard, but no photos of his family. He tries to think of them as little as possible. A photo can dredge up feelings of longing that rob him of the sleep needed to dive the next morning. Likewise, he has no photos of Alacranes in Timucuy. It is only when the reef infrequently appears on some TV programme that he can tell his family, “You know what? That's where we go to work.”

The way these men fish lobster can best be described as rustic. Swimming along the surface with their head facing downward, they try to spot dark crevices amid the coral where a lobster might be hiding out. They dive and stick their gloved hand in to feel around. If one is there, the diver will grab it, pull it out, flip it over, and stab it through the chest with a thick hook. The first man I watched perform this feat was Papí, captain of Propemex-1. He dived straight down to a depth of twelve metres time and again to snatch a persistent lobster from its lair. Several failed attempts appeared to have done little more than stir a cloud of sediment. In fact, they had succeeded in bothering the lobster enough; it emerged and swam to another location with several flaps of its tail, and Papí ably snatched it. The method may be crude, but it was performed with undeniable finesse. 

Golfo-1's small launches

The Golfo-1 picked me up just after dawn another day. We passed Isla Desaparecida - a shoal only visible during certain months of the year - en route to drop anchor near Isla Desterrada. Without a boat of my own, the logistics of transport were negotiated by asking for rides. This sometimes led me to feel I was imposing, but the lobstermen rid my concerns with their warm and welcoming attitudes. Not once did I board a vessel without being offered a drink or a plate of fresh ceviche, and they consistently refused any payment for a lift. When I insisted on purchasing four lobster tails from Papí at market price, he still tried to sneak four extra tails into my bag. I told him it was too much, and began putting them back into his cooler. He stopped me after two, and looked me straight in eye: “To live together,” he told me. He said it with such sincerity that I was taken aback. The tone of his voice made clear his belief that there should be no other way to live than in harmony.

I set out that day on a skiff with a lobsterman named Mariano and his son who, after six years fishing together, share a wordless communication. Westward winds drove the open ocean to break on the reef’s edge in a wave that stretched across our entire eastern horizon. They toss their rusty anchor overboard only if the location has enough lobster and fish to merit two divers, but that day didn’t do so even once.

A lobster fishing boat at sunset in the Gulf

Including the percentage of the sale price that goes to the Golfo-1, Mariano needs to pull fifteen tails (three kilos) per day to make the trip worth it. At day’s end, our cooler had little more than ice water sloshing around inside: two tails and one grouper.

Admittedly, other lobstermen had better luck, and it was not high season, which occurs directly after the annual four-month ban on lobster fishing. Still, these excursions must sustain Mariano's family and provide a cushion for the off-season; roughly two-thirds of Alacranes' fishermen make less than 5,000 pesos (about USD 400) per month. Mariano sometimes fishes other islands in the off periods, but once sought a job at a gasoline station. The manager offered him 45 pesos a day, so fishing was still the better option.

*

Seven months earlier, a team of UNAM researchers boarded a considerably larger vessel and set course for 22°33’ N, 91°22’ W - Bermeja’s coordinates given as recently as 1987 in the Interior Ministry's catalogue of islands. Their mission: locate the tiny island that may or may not have disappeared.

Searching old maps for Bermeja

Meanwhile, the university’s geography institute analysed maps and texts that dated from as far back as the sixteenth century, when the world that lay in wait beyond the western horizon was still unknown. The islands off the coast of the Yucatán peninsula would have been some of the first reference points encountered en route to conquer and colonize what would eventually become Mexico.

Centuries ago, Spain’s chief cosmographer interpreted returning sailors’ accounts and adjusted maps accordingly. He was not unlike the geographer in Antoine de Saint Exupéry's story The Little Prince, who says geography books never become old-fashioned because “ephemeral” things like the prince’s prized rose are not recorded. “It is very rarely that a mountain changes its position. It is very rarely that an ocean empties itself of its water,” he says. “We write of eternal things.”

Yet the chief cosmographer wrote of Bermeja. The first mention of the island was found in a book written between 1520-1538 by Alonso de Chaves. It gave Bermeja’s location relative to other islands in the vicinity, the implication being the island hadn't been confused, for example, with nearby Cayo Arenas. Another text did the same, and also described its “red hill with groves”. Bermeja appeared consistently on maps up through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when its existence began to be cast into doubt on some and removed entirely from others.

UNAM originally determined that there was “sufficient evidence to suggest the real existence of Bermeja Island,” but the ultrasounds conducted across an area equal to roughly four Manhattans indicated a relatively flat seafloor at a depth of nearly 1.5km. Soil analysis confirmed the absence of any recent disruption in the area. Finally, an aerial observation over an area the size of Jamaica - considerably larger than the point of interest – revealed not a trace of land below the water’s surface.

Their conclusion was that Bermeja never existed at its supposed coordinates. That doesn't rule out, however, the possibility that it once existed elsewhere. The most likely source of the coordinates was a nineteenth century interpretation of old maps, which themselves vary significantly in placing Bermeja’s latitude and longitude. Sailors were not capable of reliably calculating longitude until the eighteenth century, after the marine chronometer’s invention, and Bermeja’s supposed coordinates are close to where the continental shelf begins its quick drop into deep ocean.

“I'm going with the hypothesis that a landslide was the cause of the island disappearing from the surface,” said Dr. Alcantara, director of the geography institute.

*

The UNAM researchers unanimously rejected the theory that the CIA bombed Bermeja to grant the US a greater share of the Gulf. The popular rumour is believed, or at least transmitted, in part due to its stomach-churning credibility. Elias Cárdenas, president of the Lower House's Marine Commission until Autumn 2009, sat back in his chair with a smile when he summed up this perspective: “They've done worse.”

But the theory goes beyond sensationalism and strikes to the heart of a deep-seated fear in Mexican society: the gringos will take our land. “They still teach all Mexicans that the United States robbed half the territory,” Cárdenas said.

Oil is an equally sensitive subject, and dates back nearly as far. It was an American who discovered oil in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century, and US and British firms quickly assumed control of production. The Mexican public perceived this as a surrender of sovereignty and a new constitution nationalized subsoil resources, prompting US outrage.

A fisherman’s report of an oil seep in the 1970s led to the development of one of the world’s largest oil discoveries. Mexico grew increasingly concerned that the US was plotting to take possession of its new-found wealth, and president Lopez Portillo called on Jimmy Carter to unite in ushering in a new era of friendly, honest and respectful neighbourly relations:

“Mexico,” Lopez Portillo said, “has suddenly found itself the centre of American attention – attention that is a surprising mixture of interest, disdain and fear, much like the recurring vague fears that you yourselves inspire in certain areas of our national subconscious. [...] Let us seek only lasting solutions – good faith and fair play – nothing that would make us lose the respect of our children.”

Mexico has since developed an acute dependence on oil. The federal government relies on national oil monopoly Pemex for around a third of its revenue, but production has plummeted. Pemex estimates half its oil is in deep waters, so is the country’s best hope for maintaining production into the future. Oil may be a source of pride for Mexico, but Mexicans have little faith left in Pemex.

*

It is often overlooked that the US-Mexico border extends east beyond Brownsville and Matamoros into the Gulf of Mexico. The two countries negotiated a treaty for the maritime border in 1978, which Mexico’s senate quickly ratified. The US senate, meanwhile, doubted whether it was correct to use islands such as Alacranes as base points for measuring each country’s marine territory. Big Oil’s interest in reserves near the border finally spurred the US Senate to action in 1997.

Mexicans fear companies on the US side of the Gulf of Mexico will produce oil from fields straddling the border before Pemex even has a chance to even start working, and that they’ll be helpless to do anything but watch as the country’s future drains steadily northward. With that in mind, US and Mexican officials have hammered out a new treaty, the Transboundary Hydrocarbons Agreement, establishing the framework for setting production terms at specific cross-border reservoirs.

The treaty has set a precedent for the US and Mexico, both individually, since neither holds such an international agreement for oil production, and collectively: the two countries even sitting down to broach the topic of oil has been a political impossibility for decades. An apt metaphor for this distance can be seen when US and Mexican naval vessels simultaneously make port in the Gulf’s port cities, Brownsville and Matamoros. The crews wave and smile while moving parallel to one another on their own side of an imaginary line.

The marines stationed on Alacranes kept mostly to themselves during my visit. On a Saturday evening of repose, though, they invited me in and placed massive portions of flan and jelly before me. The commanding officer sat, arms crossed, facing the TV. Directly behind him, his soldiers filled the benches of a long wooden table and lay in their bunks. They were joining more than 100,000 of their countrymen who had crowded into Mexico City’s Aztec Stadium to watch the national team. A beautiful girl in big sunglasses blew a kiss into the camera; it travelled into space to an orbiting satellite then bounced down to Alacranes, where the officer grabbed it from the air and sent one back.

Marines running on the beach at Alacranes

The navy is one of four government bodies charged with patrolling the reef to check that fishermen and visitors have their permits. The authorities also work to ensure fishing vessels only drop anchor in the areas allowed, and that no one harvests turtle eggs or fishes snails, both of which face extinction. Illegal fishermen fill plastic sacks with snails, which restaurants purchase and mix in with legally fished snails from neighbouring states.

Alacranes’ immensity makes it difficult to monitor and, due to its geography, easy to escape. A fisherman will see a patrol boat from miles away as it zig-zags around the coral, and he can easily slide back into the ocean and motor off. Though illegal fishermen are spotted frequently, only two captures were registered in all of 2008. Several people told me the government basically acts as an agent of deterrence, not enforcement. For truly effective vigilance, Alacranes would need more resources, more personnel and better coordination between government agencies.

Climate change also poses a threat to Alacranes. First, greater CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere lead to acidification of the ocean, which prevents coral from forming its skeleton. And even a slight increase in surface temperatures disturbs the delicate balance of coral’s symbiotic relationship with algae, and also makes coral more vulnerable to disease.

Another threat to Alacranes may be Pemex itself. A number of years ago, Pemex officials made a presentation that outlined its plan to drill exploratory wells located just up current from the reef.

Mexico’s most famous spill occurred in 1979 when an offshore well, Ixtoc-1, blew out. At the time it was the largest offshore spill in history, and today trails only the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the US Gulf of Mexico. Over a nine-month period, Ixtoc released millions of barrels of crude into the ocean, some of which washed up on Texas beaches and sparked a confrontation between the two nations. The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig again cast the safety of deepwater drilling into doubt.

*

Sharks are part of a day’s work for the lobstermen, and attacks a remote occupational hazard. What does inspire fear is deep water, which they face when using a compressor – a machine that pumps air down a long tube, called an umbilical cord, to the diver below. The first time Caballo saw deep water he was diving with a compressor at the edge of the continental shelf. He came upon a sharp underwater drop-off and took just a quick glance, but curiosity prompted him to take another look. He crept slowly to the edge, and stared down into darkness. Coming to the rim of the abyss the first time had been circumstance, but returning took resolve.

Compressors are not allowed at Alacranes because it is a protected area, but Papi's brother, 22-year-old Isaias, was eager to learn how to dive with one. After a sunset at Isla Muertos - home to the largest colony of masked boobies in the Atlantic - he ferried me back to Isla Pérez. He stood at the bow holding the anchor line for stability with the wind tousling his cherub curls. The moon had not yet risen above the horizon and the stars were just coming out. The distant lighthouse provided no real illumination either, but somehow he could make out the seafloor. With a gentle whistle and a slight wave of his hand, he guided the man holding the motor to steer clear of coral.

Isaias told me in his quiet voice that his cousin was about the same age as he when his compressor depressurized, and he died as a result. On a few occasions Papi, “passed death by”, as the lobstermen say. They have seen the dizziness that sends a man stumbling to lean on a shipmate’s shoulder for balance, and the pains that make one scream in agony.

Isaias

Everyone has these stories, but no one is eager to share them. After we reached Pérez, we invited Isaias and his helmsman, Hermenejildo, to shore for a glass of a glass of horchata. Sitting on the porch with the sea breeze coming in strong, Hermejildo’s friendly face faded in a moment of candour and revealed a bit of what's harboured within. Years before giving up compressors, he felt pain in his arm after a dive -- one of the first symptoms of decompression sickness, or ‘the bends,’ and decided not to dive again. Despite warnings that one rest between dives, his companion insisted on going down once more.

“He climbed up and started working the motor, and I was rolling the tube. I was chatting and noticed he wasn't answering. I went behind, took the motor from him and - shit - suddenly foam started coming out of his mouth. His face and body were purple. Then he fainted.”

The crew rushed the long haul back to mainland, hitting the man’s chest the entire way to keep him awake. He was mute for ten hours before slowly uttering his first words: “I'm… going… to… die.” That time he rolled the dice and got a pass. He went back to sea, where he still dives with a compressor.

Isaias stared forward during the entire retelling, but was decidedly unaffected. I asked how he could hear such accounts and still want to use a compressor. He said it provides access to fishing destinations with greater depths than Alacranes and more time, which translates into more money.

“When I went with my cousin the first time, I saw how they made good money, got a lot of lobster. He's telling you how he saw it. I haven't seen that yet, and that's why I'm not afraid.”

In attempting to paint a gruesome picture with mere imagination, one will usually fall shy of reality: a snarling creature that refuses to be bound at the base of the memory well, and instead insists on being seen, recognized and acknowledged. Isaias will first have to stare down into that abyss before he will know if he ever wishes to return. If Alacranes is not protected and its fishing stocks not conserved, he may not have that choice. A son of his would be even less likely to find fish at Alacranes.

*

For my last day at Alacranes, I had intended to use my newly-purchased compass to locate the exact point on Alacranes’ northwesternmost island that, in the absence of Bermeja, defines Mexico’s claim to the Gulf. However, my navy transport back to mainland arrived a day earlier than expected and that plan evaporated.

Somewhat disheartened, I used my remaining time for a final dive. I followed my instructor around a rusted shipwreck, and began mentally putting aside the missed trip to enjoy the moment. Soon I felt completely at ease. Coral swayed in the gentle current and fish of all colours swam calmly about the seascape. My guide turned to check on me at one point, and his eyes went wide. He pointed behind me with urgency, and I spun to see a smooth white face the size of my own just inches away, its eyes staring into mine.

A flick of my flippers put enough space between us to see what it was: a giant sea turtle. Intrigued by these strange creatures, or perhaps feeling frisky, she had come to investigate. She was enormous - her shell easily a metre long - and we followed her through the coral. After a few minutes she went off to explore some other reaches of the reef, and I watched her gradually fade into the blue distance.

Back in our boat, my guide told me he had never seen a sea turtle that large, nor one approach divers with such confidence. Bouncing lightly on the waves in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico’s largest reef, my interest in the spot marking Mexico’s border had disappeared; the world I had seen beneath the water’s surface seemed more significant. The beauty of this rich oasis amid a vast expanse of murky depths far outshined its role as a place marker.

We find ourselves at a moment in human history when all land has been claimed, and the ocean floor is all that remains to be divvied up. Russia was indeed staking a claim, or attempting to, when it used a mini-submarine in 2007 to place its flag 4km directly below the North Pole. Others are eyeing the Arctic's deep-sea oil as ice melts and it becomes accessible. May 2009 marked the deadline for 129 countries to submit their claims to the UN for seabed located more than 200 nautical miles from shore. It's a distorted echo of the age of conquest.

As the US, Mexico and the world hash out ownership of marine territory, the following words belong definitively to Jacques Cousteau: “Our very minds are so contaminated that when explorers open the gates of the ocean or of outer space for mankind, we ask: what resources do the moon or sea have to offer? How can we exploit them – quickly, if possible?”

Bermeja may have vanished, but Alacranes remains; it should not be viewed as any less ephemeral.

Photos by Carlos Casas. 

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