Eleuthera, Bahamas – The late 1600s and early 1700s were the golden age of pirates here, led by Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard), who wove hemp into his beard and kept it smoldering during battles; Calico Jack, who favored striped coats and pants and nurtured the careers of the most famous women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read; and Sir Henry Morgan. As the Caribbean islands changed hands among the English, Dutch, French, Spanish and U.S., pirates were often hired to “police” them by faraway governments with their hands full back home.
While Somali pirates seem bold today — grabbing private sailboats and killing all onboard, not hesitating to kidnap women and children, and yesterday making a run at an American cargo boat, the Maersk Alabama, for the third time – they are legacy of a long history.
Ships commanded by pirates first explored the entirety of the Indian Ocean, from Persia to the tip of Africa. The same waters the Somali’s operate in today were dominated by pirates in 694 BC, when Assyrian king Sennacherib grew so fatigued with them attacking his ships heavy with gold, silver, spices, copper and teak that he went to war against them. Roman emperors were hassled by the same headache while simultaneously the Mediterranean was home to pirates from Turkey to Greece.
Taking hostages has always been part of the game: In 78 BC a young Julius Caesar was captured by pirates and held for six weeks, until a ransom was paid. Two years later, in Pompeii, laws were passed to “stamp out” piracy, which never quite took hold. In 1575 pirates operating out of Tunis and Algiers grabbed of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, and his brother Rodrigo and held them for five years. It took American President Thomas Jefferson sending his Navy to war, in 1801, against Tripoli-based pirates to stop open-sea hijackings … until the Somali’s emerged a few years ago.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
French Leave, Eleuthera—Under a cloud-plumed sunrise at the end of a two-and-a-half-mile long beach, I watch a 14-foot plywood boat back into the morning surf. A trio of Bahamian men readies the craft for a day of spearfishing along the a near reef that parallels the 110-mile-long island. One will steer; another will watch and stack fish. The third—a lithe, fair-skinned black man with “Aries” tattooed on his upper arm—dons a thick wetsuit while we talk. He will dive and spear. They hope the day’s catch will include 40 grouper, maybe another 40 lobster.
The laws for all fishermen in the Bahamas are straightforward, no matter the size of the boat or crew: Boats must be 100 percent owned by Bahamians. They can use seine nets, hook and line or—Aries’s tools of choice this morning—the Hawaiian sling and spear. No long lines, no chemicals and no explosives are permitted in the Bahamas. The fishermen have no GPS or fish finders. Bigger boats, mostly based at the north end of the island, set up what the locals refer to as “condominiums,” slatted wooden traps to catch lobsters.
I watch the 14-foot plywood boat motor away up the coastline. The day will take the trio 30 miles down the coast and back by early afternoon, when they will cart their catch across the island. They will clean and hawk their fish from the boat ramp at Governor’s Harbor. Passing drivers slow at the roadside cutting table, observe, ask questions (“What you got today?” “How fresh?”) and decide to stop and buy … or not.
Aries tips a white plastic bucket filled with six-pound lobster to show off his catch. “It was a good day,” he says. When I ask if fishing is his passion, he admits not.
“I like being on the water, I can dive to 100 feet. I’m not afraid of anything down there, even the tiger sharks, but to be honest when construction is good here … It’s good for the fish because lots of guys, including me, stop going out.”
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
After the Perfume River in Hoi An and the souks of Marrakech, Zanzibar rounds out the trio of ‘most-exotic’ places on the globe that I’ve long wanted to spend not days, but weeks. While these are very real places – crowded, often hot, occasionally dirty – they have set themselves up in my mind, mostly through books, as mysterious, romantic.
Walking the tight streets of Stone Town, the centuries-old market on Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar, the place lives up to the reputation built in my mind. The earliest visitors here were Arab traders who are said to have arrived in the 8th century; pirates swarmed its coastline beginning five to six hundred years ago. I walk into its earliest building, the mosque at Kizimkazi, which dates back to 1107. Hints of its human influences – Assyrians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese, Omani Arabs, Dutch and English – are visible everywhere. Some, particularly the Shirazi Persians and Omani Arabs, stayed to settle and rule. With this influence, Zanzibar has become predominantly Islamic (97%) – the remaining 3% is made up of Christians, Hindus and Sikhs.
For centuries the Arabs sailed with the Monsoon winds from Oman to trade primarily in ivory, slaves and spices. The two main islands, Unguja and Pemba, provided an ideal base for the Omani Arabs, being relatively small, and therefore fairly easy to defend. From here it was possible for them to control 1,000 miles of the mainland coast from present day Mozambique to Somalia. Most of the wealth lay in the hands of the Arab community, who were the main landowners, kept themselves to themselves, and generally did not intermarry with the Africans.
This was not true of the Shirazi Persians who came from the Middle East to settle on the East African coast. The story goes that in AD 975, Abi Ben Sultan Hasan of Shiraz in Persia (now Iran) had a terrible nightmare in which a rat devoured the foundations of his house. He took this as an omen that his community was to be devastated. Others in the Shiraz Court ridiculed the notion, but Sultan Hasan, his family and some followers obviously took it very seriously because they decided to migrate. They set out in seven dhows into the Indian Ocean but were caught in a huge storm and separated. Thus, landfalls were made at seven different places along the East African coast, one of which was Zanzibar, and settlements began.
Widespread intermarriage between Shirazis and Africans gave rise to a coastal community with distinctive features, and a language derived in part from Arabic, which became known as Swahili. The name Swahili comes from the Arab word sawahil, which means ‘coast’. The Zanzibar descendants of this group were not greatly involved in the lucrative slave, spice and ivory trades. Instead, they immersed themselves mainly in agriculture and fishing. Those Shirazis that did not intermarry retained their identity as a separate group.
This day we get lost in the narrow market streets, modern-day stores selling much of the same factory-made “antiques” to a booming tourist crowd, and emerge in the real Zanzibar, a sprawling open-air market. Even in the late afternoon as the sun begins to disappear on a hot, hot day it is packed with people weighing fruits and vegetables, eyeing shell fish and giant jack’s, for the home table.
It’s a beautiful end to a first day on the so-called spice island; from here, its north, into the heart of what is increasingly becoming “the pirate’s sea.” So … stay tuned!
As the world raised a small hullabaloo last week in honor of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday it made me think long and hard about how the natural world has changed since his birth. I wonder what Darwin would make of these wild places that are now so linked with his name, his image, his writings? The timing is fortuitous too, because we are just finishing a new film about the Galapagos, specifically focused on man’s impact on the islands, and we’re calling it “What Would Darwin Think?”
Last May we spent several weeks in and around the bigger of the Galapagos islands, talking with locals and expatriate environmentalists about the relationship between its fragile ecosystem and a boom in mankind trodding its shorelines. Our goal was not to show (once again) how wondrous the wildlife is there but to show how man’s footprint is changing the place. And fast. The recently elected president of Ecuador has declared the Galapagos “endangered,” which takes most by surprise since only three percent of the island state is even accessible to man.
It’s not tourists exactly who are impacting Darwin’s laboratory, but all those who have arrived from mainland Ecuador to cash in on the tourist boom. They come, many of them with pick-up trucks, dogs, cats and kids, hoping to participate in the boom and hopefully get rich. Reality of course is that few get rich; in fact many can’t find jobs. On the big island of Santa Cruz there are today more than 25,000 residents; a decade ago there were 1,500. The pressure on the island is great; we watched a cargo boat arrive and spend three full days offloading all the good’s necessary to support the island for a single week.
The impact on the Galapagos wildlife is far-reaching. Unemployed fishermen often feel they have no option but to fish illegally, or to participate in the illegal sea cucumber and shark finning businesses (which are run by mafia-like organizations on the mainland). Others, tired of the crowds in Santa Cruz, are packing up and moving – with their dogs and cats – to some of the smaller, outer islands, where endemic species of reptile and bird will soon be made extinct thanks to their new neighbors.
In recent months I’ve been to a few wild places that are changing in part due to tourist booms: the Peninsula of Antarctica, the island of South Georgia and the Galapagos. All are suffering in similar fashion; each is wrestling on its own with how to control man’s increased visitations. It will be interesting to watch as they each fashion slightly different rules and regulations. I’ll remind you when our film – “What Would Darwin Think?” – is out; there will certainly be clues in it to the Galapagos’ future and plenty of pondering about Darwin’s 21st century take on the place.
In the whaling museum here the most fascinating thing to me – after the touch-me-feel-me penguin skin – are the trophies and sports uniforms worn by the different South Georgia whaling station teams which competed against each other in rugby, track and field, ski jumping and more during the heyday of whale killing here.
Grytviken's abandoned whaling station
Grytviken was South Georgia’s first whaling station/factory, set up by Norwegian explorer C.A. Larsen in 1904. Initially only blubber was taken and the carcass discarded resulting in beaches of bones along the coastline which I can still see lying in the shallows off what remains of its main dock. By 1912, seven whaling stations had been established and South Georgia became known as the southern capital of whaling.
That heyday was during the early 1900s, when a variety of whales (blue, fin, sei, humpback and southern right whales) were abundant in South Georgia’s waters during the austral summers, feeding on the massive quantities of krill found on the edge of the island’s continental shelf.
By the late 1920s such shore-based whaling factories on the island declined due the scarcity of whales around the island, followed by a boom in whaling on the high seas. The stations on South Georgia then became home base for repair, maintenance and storage. It was the uncontrolled whaling on the high seas followed – up to two hundred miles off shore – and led to significant reductions in populations of exploited whale species.
The whale catcher "Petrel" would hunt whales as far as 200 miles off the coast of South Georgia
Whales were harpooned with an explosive grenade, inflated with air and marked with a flag, radar reflectors, and latterly radios. A catcher would then tow them to a factory ship or shore station. The whale was hauled to the flensing plan. The blubber was removed and boiled under pressure to extract the oil. Meat and bone were separated and boiled. The results were dried and ground down for stock food and fertilizer. Baleen whale oil was the basis of edible, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and chemical products. It was also an important source of glycerol to manufacture explosives.
Thirty-pound harpoon head
Between 1904 and 1965 some 175,250 whales were processed at South Georgia shore stations. In the whole of the Antarctica region a low estimate suggests one and a half million animals were taken between 1904 and 1978. Probably the largest whale ever recorded was processed here at Grytviken in 1912, more than one hundred feet long, weighing in at nearly two hundred tons. This intensive hunting reduced the Southern Ocean stock, once the largest in the world, to less than ten percent of their original numbers and some species to less than one percent.
It wasn’t until 1974 that the International Whaling Convention agreed to protect the few remaining species in the Southern Ocean, and whaling here was mostly stopped in 1978. Paul Watson and his Sea Shepard – now Animal Planet heroes apparently, though that has happened this season while I’ve been in Antarctica – are still attempting to dissuade the Japanese from their annual hunt. Today. On occasion, you can spy whales close to shore at South Georgia, as they make a slow recovery, in particular southern right whales and humpbacks.
THE BOSS IS BURIED HERE
On top of the sense of history left at this beach by its whaling history, Grytviken is famous in Southern Ocean lore too for being the burial site of Ernest Henry Shackleton.
In 1921 – six years after successfully rescuing his men off Elephant Island, thanks to the help of the Chilean naval vessel “Yelcho” – he sailed south for what was to be his third Antarctic expedition. Its vague intention was to survey the coastline and carry out somewhat ill-defined science. You get the sense he was just itching to get back down south.
This time out his sailing ship, “The Quest” barely made it to Grytviken and in the early hours of January 5, 1922, he suffered a fatal heart attack here. His body was on its way back to England when the ship carrying him home stopped off in Uruguay and learned that his widow wished her husband be buried on South Georgia. His grave is still the focus of the Whaler’s Cemetery at the end of the beach.
The last resting place of Ernest Henry Shackleton
It is tradition to toast “the Boss” – no, not the bard of New Jersey! – with a shot of rum poured onto his grave, which I happily did. Unlike the rest of those buried in the small, white picket-lined cemetery, Shackelton is interned with his head pointing south, towards Antarctica.
A rare South Georgia pintail duck swims just offshore from the Whaler's Cemetery
Photos, Fiona Stewart
Ernest Shackleton had an intimate relationship with South Georgia. He stopped here for a month in 1914 before sailing the “Endurance” to its crushing fate in Antarctica; a year and a half later with five others he sailed the gerry-rigged lifeboat “James Caird” 800 miles across the Scotia Sea to King Haarkon Bay, arriving on May 9, 1916; and in 1922 he returned, died and is buried here.
On a warm and sun-filled morning we land at Fortuna Bay, to repeat the last chunk of Shackleton’s legendary and unprecedented climb across South Georgia. A steep and muddy tussock hill leads to fields of broken slate, which climb gradually to 3,000 feet. The higher we get, the more stunning the landscape grows: tall, spiky, far off peaks covered in snow, clear mountain ponds, tufts of soft moss scattered among the shattered scree, waterfalls tumbling off nearby walls.
The climb up from Fortuna Bay
It was the whalers of South Georgia who first warned Shackleton that his route to the northern edge of the Antarctic continent was likely to be barred by unusually heavy concentrations of ice that had arrived the year he sailed for the Weddell Sea in December. He went anyway; we don’t know what he was thinking when he left South Georgia then nor what exactly when he thought when returned via the “James Caird.” In retrospect would he think it had been a mistake to take the “Endurance” down that season?
Exhausted by the 16 days it took from Elephant Island in the tiny boat, they narrowly negotiated a landing and crawled ashore on the southwestern side of the island, at Cape Rosa. But ultimate safety lay on the north side of the island, at the whaling station called Stromness. Leaving three of his crew under the upturned “James Caird,” Shackleton along with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley set off with minimal equipment (stove, binoculars, compass, an ice ax and ninety feet of rope).
Three thousand feet above sea level
A summer day midway through the Shackleton Route
Shackleton wrote of the beginning of the climb: “The snow-surface was disappointing. Two days before we had been able to move rapidly on hard packed snow; now we sank over our ankles at each step. High peaks, impassable cliffs, steep snow-slopes and sharply descending glaciers were prominent features in all directions, with stretches of snow-plain overlaying the ice-sheet of the interior …. The moon, which proved a good friend during this journey, threw a long shadow at one point and told us that the surface was broken in our path. Warned in time, we avoided a huge hole capable of swallowing a small army.”
At one point they had detoured badly and had to drop down to Fortuna Bay, which is where we picked up their trail.
Standing at the crest of the hill, the point at which Shackleton would have seen the sea on the eastern side of the island and possibly evidence of the whaling station at Stromness, it is hard to imagine what must have gone through his mind, after a year and a half being lost. One big difference is their journey in May was through deep snow; we see barely a snow patch on this mid-summer day. What told them they were in the right place after thirty-six hours of climbing, across twenty-two miles of previously unexplored and inhospitable terrain, was the very civilized whistle of the whaling factory’s wake-up call.
“Men lived in houses lit by electric light on the east coast. News of the outside world waited us there, and, above all, the east coast meant for us the means of rescuing the twenty-two men we had left on Elephant Island.”
Clambering downhill, past the tall waterfall Shackleton allegedly rappelled down, we cross a wide, wet plain of saw grass and glacial melt. Rusted remnants of the whaling station still stand, though today it’s tumbling down and off-limits due to being filled with asbestos and flying sheet metal. Thousands of fur seals wait on the beach to greet us; they have taken over the place, aggressively chasing us down the beach as soon as we step onto the sand.
Fur seals guard the rusting whaling station at Stromness
A parade of penguins outside Stromness
Photos, Fiona Stewart