By Gustavo Crespo, WildAid Marine Program guest writer, August 17, 2017
It’s 7pm on a Tuesday in Puerto López, Ecuador. The Megáptera, a speedboat donated by WildAid to Machalilla National Park, lies in the sand. Two Machalilla Park Rangers, Rodrigo and Wilfer, check the tide to depart on a four-day patrol of Isla de la Plata.
“Come on!” orders Wilfred every time he thinks there’s an opportunity to push the boat into the sea. “Once the bow takes off, it’s easy,” he says. Beside him, barefoot and submerged in ankle-deep water, Rodrigo pushes when ordered. This dynamic continues until finally the boat lifts from the sand and begins to float.
Gradually the lights of Puerto Lopez begin to fade away. From the pier, a green laser points to the boat. It may just be child’s play, but the Rangers think it is likely some fishermen who observed their departure. “It would be great to leave from a different port so we could catch illegal fishers by surprise, but this is our only option,” Wilfer comments a little disappointed.
The boat picks up some speed and begins to move away from the coast. Since it’s whale season, the Rangers have to reduce their speed. It’s dark and they could crash into a humpback whale, not only injuring the animal, but also risking their own lives. In June of this year, two fishermen died when their boat, Blessing of God, hit a humpback whale.
Upon arrival to Isla de la Plata, an island known for its incredible biodiversity and abundance of species, the Rangers use night vision goggles to spot any suspicious vessels within the two-mile protected area. All seems clear, so they head to a bay on the quiet side of the island. There are fishing boats that use this area to rest.
“Good evening, gentlemen, we are Park Rangers from Machalilla National Park. Are you resting? How was your fishing?” asks Wilfer. Dark nights are the best to find fish banks, and this being a clear night, apparently meant a suboptimal catch.
After confirming that no illegal activities were carried out, they search for a buoy designated for official Park boats. They find it occupied by a fishing boat, so they ask the fishers to station their boat at a different buoy and the fishermen comply.
Wilfer changes into more comfortable clothing to sleep, while Rodrigo lays out his sleeping bag. It is still early, so they chat as they devour the few snacks available, making plans to circle the island once more at 3am, “the silly hour” according to Wilfer, to intercept any illegal fishers.
At dawn, they embark on another patrol around the island and disembark on the beach. There is a two-story house that is used as a control and interpretation center. Tourists will arrive in a couple hours so Wilfer and Rodrigo use their time off to exercise on a pull-up bar. “It’s important to stay in shape,” Wilfer says, puffing out his chest proudly. Since they spend most of their day in a boat, exercise is very important for them.
After their workout, they eat and joke together with two colleagues that work at the center. Breakfast consists of a mountain of rice, a piece of fresh fish and a tiny portion of cooked vegetables. As one of only two meals per day, a hearty breakfast is a must.
Wilfer and Rodrigo return to the Megaptera as the morning progresses and tour boats with foreign and domestic passengers intent on bird watching, swimming with sea turtles and observing humpback whales arrive.
One of the last boats to arrive announces that they spotted a whale caught in a fishing net. Wilfer and Rodrigo, having spent all morning patrolling for illegal activities, respond and embark to the spot of the sighting. Upon arrival, they find a mother with her calf, but it is not the one they are looking for. They keep going and the sea becomes choppier.
They locate another tour boat and close by, some large splashes in the water. The foam rises several meters as an adult humpback and its young calf splash with their fins and tails, while a few photographers battle the rocking of the waves to get a shot.
The calf’s breaching tells the Rangers that this is also not the entangled whale. After some discussion, they find that this tour boat was the one that had reported the entangled whale. The crew gives a more accurate description of the situation to the Rangers.
Wilfer and Rodrigo discuss the situation and decide to cancel the search. Because it was a mild tangle, the whale will most likely be fine without a rescue. Additionally, they do not have the necessary equipment to carry out a rescue, and the boat with the equipment would take a long time to arrive. Because it is three o’clock in the afternoon and the trapped whale has not been found, they would not be able to execute the rescue before nightfall.
They abandon the search and continue their regular patrol route. In a couple hours, they will be able to rest onshore and have their second and final meal of the day. They have neither the time nor the resources for a third. Surely that meal will contain another great mountain of rice.