Where There is Life There is Hope. An Ode to Maurice and the Seafarers – by Inilek Wilmot
by Inilek Wilmot
Inilek Wilmot (arm outstretched) and his own seafaring Rastafarian family.
Incredible photo courtesy of Steve Gorrow.
Editor’s Note. This is what I hope will be the first of a series of Scuttlefish features from Inilek “Ini” Wilmot and perhaps other members of his Jamaican family. I first met Ini’s father, reggae musician and Jamaican surf guru Billy “Mystic” Wilmot surfing in Kingston way back in the late 1980’s. In the years since, I’ve been lucky to spend plenty of time surfing the phenomenal waves of the island’s eastern shore with Billy and his kids. Though he was just a kid when I first met him, Inilek has gone on to become a musician, dad, Jamaican surf ambassador, scientist and manager of Jamaica’s Oracabessa and Boscobel Marine Sanctuaries. For those of you who’ve never been to Jamaica, Oracabessa is the beautiful seaside community where Ian Fleming’s mind gave birth to James Bond.
Inilek Wilmot. Photo: Ishack Wilmot.
Last week, Inilek spoke before the United Nations Food And Agriculture Organization. Currently, he’s working on coral gardening and turtle conservation projects. He also happens to be a damn good writer who understands his home island in a way few outsiders – or locals for that matter – ever will. Here, he pays homage to a crew of Jamaican freedivers, men for whom fishing, quite literally means life – or death. — CD
Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
On our island there is no other daily struggle that is as primal. And that is not for want of struggle. There is a lot of struggle, but none as primal.
There are countless people in Jamaica who wake each day without enough to feed every person in their care. There are many who take to the streets to get by — undergoing various means for a few dollars to make at least the most pressing ends meet. Most of these people attempt to squeeze an answer from a seemingly parched economy. But these seafarers of which I speak attempt to squeeze from the sea an ever diminishing resource. Often times hoping to squeeze just enough to survive. Every fish they catch is a prayer answered and the end result of pushing their bodies to the limit.
Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
Though I grew up in a seaside settlement it was not until I took on postgraduate studies in marine biology that I got a truly intimate experience of the daily lives of Jamaican fishermen. My research was based in a remote area along the southeastern coast; it was about forty five minutes by boat from the nearest road. I was a part of a team of 4 studying that area. My colleagues were Alison Foster, Nicole Harris and Denise Chin. I’m sure all of our lives were changed by that experience. Our routine had to fit into the ebb and flow of Rocky Point fishing beach in St. Thomas. Our specific niche was within a two-man boat crew. Bully and Gill became our companions and research assistants through many hours at sea in the blazing sun, pouring rain, strong currents, dangerous swells and beautiful moments.
The first shocking moment for me occurred one day when we were giving a group of spear fishers a ride out to the reef. The conversation turned to an incident where a pair of fishermen who had gone missing were discovered near the coast of South America. During the winter, strong north winds are a dangerous companion to the fishers on the south coast. If their boat engine fails, they drift, and there is practically no land between Jamaica’s south coast and that of South America.
Jamaican Fisherman. Image Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
After listening in on the discussion for a while I said the experience must be unimaginable. The shock came when almost all the fishers on the boat said that they had drifted at least once and all of them had lost friends to the sea. One of them had drifted for more than a week. He survived by catching fish for nourishment and drinking urine for hydration.
This experience opened my eyes to the challenge that these men have accepted. I found it difficult to make sense of how calmly they spoke of the ever present danger. They knew it well and yet they didn’t hate it, they were more respectful than anything. They seemed to accept that they were living in a world not meant for humans and they were playing by the rules of that world. The consequence was death and the payoff was survival — for themselves in the most immediate sense, and then for their families by extension. At least for another day.
A St. Thomas Fisherman is a Tiny Dot on the Horizon. Photo: Inilek Wilmot.
Years later I am working with fishers again. This time managing fish sanctuaries, which are no-fishing zones. These are areas where reproduction is the intention. They are set aside to replenish the adjacent overfished reefs by creating significant breeding populations of reef fish species. The program is not without controversy as there is initially a period of investment where fishers must forego their usual catches as a result of giving up areas of fishing ground. Within this soup of differing opinions, intentions, and socioeconomic nuances, the realities of the artisanal fisheries are stark.
It is in this capacity that I have now gained even deeper insight into the daily plight of the fisherman and gained a more finely tuned understanding of the fishing community. Today, I will reflect on a particular subset of fishers. Spear fishers.
North Coast Spearfisherman. Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
The coastal shelf on the north coast of Jamaica, where I am based, is much narrower than on the south coast. Fish stocks on nearshore reefs have been depleted, which forces spear fishers to make the short swim out to deeper waters where they must freedive to mind boggling depths of up to a hundred feet deep at a mere 500 meters from shore. I once asked Ray, an experienced diver, how he does it. I didn’t expect him to stop and think for a moment at my simple question but he did. His answer was “Determined. We are determined.” Another spear fisher, Bat Bat, has a daughter who has just been accepted into university. He has to find $1,500 Jamaican Dollars to send her to school each day. That means at least six pounds of fish per day. Thirty pounds per week. Every morning he leaves home before dawn and walks for miles, then swims for miles. He said to me, “Ini, I have to find it. my daughter is going to university.” He didn’t have to say it, but I understood clearly that as long as there is life in his limbs, he will push his body to the limit for at least six pounds of fish each day. All these guys putting their lives on the line each day have different reasons but the same determination. It doesn’t always end well. Sometimes Bat Bat swims to shore with only two pounds of fish, some days he can not go out because of illness or bad weather. But thankfully he has made it to the end of each day with life and the will to fight on. “Where there is life there is hope,” is a common saying on fishing beaches.
On the 16th of November 2014 the fishing community of which I have become a part was shaken. Maurice Smith, affectionately known as Giant, went after a fish in about 80 feet of water. He spent too long pursuing the fish and just barely made it to the surface before blacking out; his body sank. Bat Bat responded quickly. He pulled him to the surface and swam with him shouting for help until they were picked up by a boat. Maurice didn’t make it.
A year earlier Maurice had told me that he was with a nice girl and was determined to build a life with her. He was 31 years old.
Maurice Smith, Center at the Back in Orange and White.
“I worked closely with fishers in St. Thomas and their acceptance of the power of the ocean was humbling, their acceptance that their lives were like candles afloat in a turmoil sea.” Photo Courtesy: Inilek Wilmot.
The Wilmots’ Jamesia Surf Camp is an incredible way to experience the life, waves and culture of Kingtson and Jamaica’s south coast.