How “The Story of Oracabessa Fish Sanctuary” in Jamaica Was Told

by Inilek Wilmot

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Screenshot from “The Story of Oracabessa” by Project Moana.

They sailed in slow like the tide one evening. Sailboats often take shelter in Oracabessa Bay’s artificial harbour, which was engineered by the government of Jamaica as part of a project to expand the then thriving banana port. That port expansion was later abandoned as other ports became more important points of export. While the reclaimed land was purchased by Chris Blackwell and is now part of Goldeneye, a heaven-on-earth type resort where many of the world’s wealthiest and most famous escape to paradise, the harbour remains public thoroughfare and is one of the few places on Jamaica’s north coast where one can drop anchor without mooring fees.

The crew paddled to shore in a tiny dinghy, landing at Oracabessa Fishing Beach, also called ‘The Bond Beach.” Its name is a reference to a particular chapter of the town’s rich history, in which a man named Fleming, sitting around a desk in his seaside cottage, dreamed up a hero by the name of James Bond. Such subtle references as the name on a sign are the only tangible links to this fascinating fact. It creates mystique that can be explored within the collective memory of the community by those who take the time for conversation. The stories to be found are like hidden gems; which are always better hidden.

They were a group of college-aged wanderers intentionally losing their way along their way. The crew’s captain, Giovanni, had sold most his personal belongings and purchased the sailboat “Seaquest,” upon which they had arrived, and was at the time sailing the Americas shooting a documentary on spear fishermen titled “Diving Deeper” with his mates Luc, Francis, Eva and David. At some point during their chit chat with the locals they learned that they had sailed into Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary, a marine protected area, and made the short walk up to my office from which all  things fish sanctuary are managed.

Our office is a refurbished forty foot shipping container. It’s blue, on the beach, and I like to think it looks inviting. We have a door’s-open-come-on-in policy and it is not unusual to have all manner of persons sticking their head’s in to find out ‘whaa gwaan’ (what’s going on). This they did and received our usual courtesy. After my usual ‘this is who we are and this is what we do at Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary’ monologue we got to talking about their story.

It is a bit strange when you are face to face with someone who does things that sound crazy when you say them out loud. Things that, when they are not around, sound kind of unbelievable but are okay to say because they fit within the realm of general folklore. Things that you’d probably say “I’d love to do that” about in conversation, but when considering the reality you’d think “who would actually do that?”

I was having one of those moments while looking into the eyes of a guy who sold everything he had and bought a sailboat — which wasn’t seaworthy at the time of purchase — learned how to fix it himself, set out to sail the eastern hemisphere while writing the script and playing the hero as he went along. It was one of those stories that just keep getting better with every question asked. He had never sailed a yacht in his life. However, he was an avid wind surfer and had accomplished a small feat in his teenage years when he sailed a dinghy across a small bay.

To set his grand plans into motion he was faced with the challenge of mastering a much bigger boat and a much bigger bay, and he certainly couldn’t sail the boat by himself. Not fazed by these little hurdles, he convinced some friends that he knew what he was doing and in no time had a motley crew consisting of a web designer, an underwater photographer, an artist and an anthropologist. All he then had to do was teach them how to sail and they were in business. So they practiced sailing skills for two days, every hour feeling more confident that they had the knack of things. Being the enthusiasts that they are, they departed Fort Myers, Florida for the Caribbean on the third day figuring they would perfect their skills as they went.

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Spearfishermen are not only having to dive deeper, but stay longer at sea. too. Screenshot from “The Story of Oracabessa” by Project Moana.

After being bombarded by this series of mind boggling facts I finally found my footing on common ground. We got to talking about the problem of overfishing and the crippling effect it has had on fishing industries. We spoke of the ecological shift from coral rich reefs to algal dominated reefs in the Caribbean, driven by lack of herbivorous fish. I told them about the network of no-take fish sanctuaries that Jamaica has put in place to create replenishment zones for reef fish, and how the sanctuaries will seed adjacent reefs by adult fish spilling over once their populations inside approach capacity, as well as how the export of millions and millions of fish eggs from the sanctuaries would have impacts on a much larger scale in the long term. They told me of their mission to tell the story of spear fishermen having to dive ever deeper as the nearshore reef fish populations are steadily depleted, and the impact this has on their lives.

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Screenshot from “The Story of Oracabessa” by Project Moana.

As our conversation went on it became more and more apparent that we were telling the same story. For me it was inspirational that there were persons who would care so much about that story that they would change their lives to such an extent just to have it told and heard. For them, I guess I was uncovering details of this story that they were so deeply invested in. In a way I think I was showing them the happy ending in the  scheme of things; a sanctuary managed by the local community for the local community with support from the tourism sector through Chris Blackwell’s Oracabessa Foundation, with a clearly defined goal: a healthy bay.

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Since the sanctuary first began in 2010, there are now 560% more fish surrounding the protected reef. Screenshot from “The Story of Oracabessa” by Project Moana.

We bonded in that little office on common ground. We were all clear; A healthy environment is good for the whole community. For the fishing industry it means realizing returns on investments. In terms of quality of life it means having places that are beautiful that belong to the people, can be enjoyed by them and are a source of pride. For the economy it means having a great tourism product. We were working towards this reality from the ground level, and their ultimate desire was to inspire persons to work towards such an end.

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Coral gardening. Screenshot from “The Story of Oracabessa” by Project Moana.

Gio wanted to share our story with the world right away. In the weeks that followed, our office became their office: they tagged along with our wardens and coral gardeners on the job, attended our team and community meetings, and got hands on with our Turtle Man Mel Tennant’s turtle conservation project. They truly immersed themselves and lived and breathed the story of Oracabessa’s Fish Sanctuary, filming, photographing and conducting interviews as they did so.

Then, just as it began, their stay ended, and slow like the tide, they sailed out of Oracabessa Bay.

Some weeks later Gio dropped me an email saying he had started having conversations with Chris Blackwell and had also shared some of the footage with him. Soon after that I received another message saying Chris was onboard. Some months later he again sent an email. This time with an attachment: the first draft of his vision, The Story of Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary.

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