When I arrived in 1970 on Utila, known as “the Rock,” to locals because of its sharp cliffs and old reef, also dubbed the “Flower of Honduras” by former President Policarpo Bonilla, the ocean was teeming with marine life.
The population of commercial fishermen was relatively small and mostly from the cays. The dories were relatively small and had small engines. Life was hard. Miss Trudy told me they used to use sea fans for coffee strainers and coconut husks for scrubbing brushes. Then more and more locals were shipped out to work on ships and oilrigs. Plus a lot migrated to the US to earn a better living. So for a while, commercial fishing, which contributed later to the drastic decrease of marine life locally and also worldwide, actually slowed down.
With sadness I think of the good old days, when I used to see sharks, “splendid savages of the deep” as Jacques Cousteau called them in his book Silent World. Actually, my first hour in the ocean I experienced a shark attack right on the old Airport Reef. Later I had many encounters with those beautiful creatures, mostly lured in by a speared fish. For many years sharks remained mostly untouched by commercial fishing.
Then, suddenly, the market for shark fins got under way. As we used to stop by the cays in between dives to get Susan’s famous fish burger and a hot piece of banana cake, I used to see hundreds of shark fins hung out to dry.
Later I witnessed with revulsion the Japanese fishing fleet (long liners) on TV catching sharks by the thousands, cutting their fins off with the shark alive and throwing the sharks overboard to drown.
In one Asian country, they even herded dolphins in a confined space and clubbed them to death. Even the gentle giant, the whale shark, now a great attraction on Utila, gets slaughtered in some countries. When you go diving now, shark sightings on the reef are a thing of the past; maybe a nurse shark if you are very lucky.
And just as most sharks are gone, so are most of the reef fish, lobsters, conch, whelks and other seafood, especially since the uncontrolled migration from the mainland started.
In the old days, undersize fish, lobsters, conch and whelks, etc., were left to grow and multiply. Not anymore. Now nothing is being spared by those scavengers. Even though there are laws against it, they are not being enforced.
So as I went for my customary 70-meter tech dive September 16, I was just cruising down the 180-foot ridge where in the past I have seen turtles as large as 200 lbs., 20-lb. mutton snappers, a 70-80-lb. cubera snapper with three remoras hitching a ride, seven-foot morays, a couple of big nurse sharks, etc. But nothing prepared me for the encounter that Sunday. Just cruising down the wall I saw this flicker to my right and lo and behold there was this 8-10-foot hammerhead shark moving pretty fast up the sand bottom. Unfortunately, the intensity lasted only a brief moment. I tried to chase him to no avail. That splendid underwater creature was gone.
As Clint Eastwood used to say in his Dirty Harry movies, “Make my day.” Well, that hammerhead sure made my day, I can assure you. Hoping to have another encounter, I looked for him at 200 feet on several occasions, unfortunately to no avail.
Well, perhaps there is hope, and somebody will wake up and realize we can’t keep depleting and polluting our oceans without eventually paying a steep price.
Protect the sharks and marine life, at all cost!!!