Four days and four thousand miles from home…

by Guest Blogger

July 13, 2006

The following posting is from Carroll, who is onboard in the Bering Sea…

Two days flying from Washington D.C. Two days adjusting to the rhythm and routine of ship life. Four days and four thousand miles from home. And I’m finally ready to write my first blog. “This is a good day for it,” I told myself this morning. “We’ve got a lot of great stuff to write about.” Ahh, the best laid plans…

After losing our first rigid inflatable boat also known as a "RIB" or “zodiac” to a mysterious oil leak yesterday, we dropped the second one, “Marrakesh”, in the water this morning and headed out to look for killer whales. A RIB is smaller than a ship and bigger than a canoe, and it’s full of air we’ve got two of ‘em…Or, so we thought. As we passed through the channel into open sea, Adam opened the throttle to give us some speed and …nothing. Marrakesh just kept puttering along, even with the throttle wide open. In five foot seas, this is not a good thing. You need to go fast enough to stay on top of the waves, unless you want the waves on top of you. Less than ten minutes into the trip, we turned and headed for home. We were starting our day 0 for 2 on the RIBs.

This would have been inconvenient even at the best of times. Today was not the best of times. Allan Springer, a research professor from the University of Alaska, was coming at noon to get our help retrieving a killer whale research buoy. The killer whale calls recorded on the buoy will help scientists better understand the volume and nature of killer whale activity in the waters around St. Paul. Assuming, of course, we could get it out of the sea. We needed at least one working RIB to do that. Adam and Willie (the first mate, and fix-it-guy-in-chief) hauled Marrakesh back on board and started pirating parts from inoperable RIB #1 to get at least one of them working again. They were still working when Allan showed up three hours later. Twenty minutes after that, Marrakesh was running and ready to go. Little miracles.

While Adam and James headed out with Allan to fetch the buoy, the rest of us went to a community feast, to which we were graciously invited. The good food, the friendship and the folding chairs would be familiar to anyone who’s been to a small-town potluck just about anywhere. But it was something else that got me thinking of my own hometown in rural Kentucky. Before the meal, two priests led the community in singing The Lord’s Prayer. It was a version unlike any I’ve ever heard, drawn not only from the Unangan’s Russian Orthodox faith, but from their history in this harsh and beautiful land. It was a slow, rich, sonorous sound that rose and fell like the Bering winds, with a deep, thrumming bass line like the crashing of waves. It was the sound of sadness, and stillness, and memory. But mostly, it was the sound of belonging. The sound that comes from being so much part of a place that the place becomes part of you. Runs so deep in your veins that it aches to be away from it. This is what I heard in the Unangan’s song, and this is what I know is at stake here.

Again and again, people on St. Paul and St. George have told us how factory trawlers are ravaging their coastal fishing grounds, forcing local fishermen far offshore in search of a vanishing catch. The explosion of industrial-scale fishing is making it ever harder to make ends meet with the small boats and small crews of the Pribilof Islands. In the face of this economic pressure from industrial giants, more and more people are leaving the Pribilofs in search of new opportunities. Just as people from my county were forced from farms into factories when the growth of massive agribusiness made it impossible to compete. In fishing, as in farming, economies of scale don’t account for family, or community, or belonging—any more than they account for ecology. The trawlers will take from these waters and from these people until there is nothing more to take. Then they will move on to new fishing grounds and start the cycle all over again. Never still, never remembering, never belonging.

Shortly after we returned from the potluck, the Marrakesh returned from her errand. Despite some skepticism from us armchair quarterbacks back on the ship, they’d managed to find and retrieve a 2-foot research buoy hidden under several fathoms of water in a patch of ocean nearly half a mile square. Allan looked pleased.

After the buoy was loaded up an on its way, the sun came out from behind the clouds for the first time in two days, and I decided to take advantage of the rare sunshine to photograph the seabird cliffs nearby. As I clambered over the sofa-sized rocks of the seawall, I saw fat, fast puffins torpedoing across the sky, least auklets feeding their young, graceful kittiwakes sailing the updrafts, and a factory trawler sitting not a mile offshore, transferring its catch to a cargo vessel. Sitting there on the rocks, I found myself quietly singing a song from Sesame Street. “One of these things is not like the others….”

– Carroll 

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