Water – Tragedies to Avoid and Fears to Learn From

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By Susan Birkenshaw

I am neither a scientist and nor a professional diver and I have never claimed to be an activist.  The people in these roles are the ones we must to listen to now, if we (people in general) are ever going to have even a minor role in reclaiming our planet and its oceans and the playground that has come to be our home.

I have just returned to Canada from my first long term (6 months) residency in Huatulco.  While getting ready for the return journey I reviewed in my mind all the experiences that we have had in the last 6 months.  It came to be a long list of good times with a few bad times interspersed.

I was surprised and afraid to let several of my new realities and fears come to the surface.  First, I am a bright light worshipper – I truly get miserable in the gloom and dark skies of winter in Canada and even in the mountains of my beloved Ecuador.  Second, I am no longer the off-the-charts extrovert of my early years – maturity or simply aging? And finally, and most importantly, I need a body of water nearby.

Why were these important learnings?  It took me 24 hours of being back in Canada to feel the heaviness of cold snow clouds!  The bright sun on the waters of Chauhue Beach is something I came to take for granted until this week.  The water – a perfect constant blue – seemed to be eternal.  Then the impact of the damage that we have been doing to our planet came into much more direct focus when I remembered the whales we saw on our sails in the bays (beautifully majestic but apparently fewer in number), while snorkeling in some bays was a sad disappointment amid the pieces of plastic that lay water-logged at the water’s edge.  

Avoidable Tragedies – Making Changes in Habits

As single events, not much reaction other than – that’s so sad, but taken as a part of a very big picture, the impact was huge! By the end of our 6 months, I found myself picking up plastic garbage wherever we wandered.  Not a big deal but beginning of my own education.

I started by thinking about popotes (drinking straws).  The oldest drinking straw in existence, found in a Sumerian tomb dated 3,000 BCE, was a gold tube inlaid with the precious stone lapis lazuli.  Nowadays, of course, most straws are plastic, so I went out of my way to look at the impact of the ubiquitous plastic drinking straw.  Here’s a small bit of the info that I found by simply entering these words into my search engine: “drinking straws in the ocean”, not really sophisticated, but it garnered 284,000 hits.

What did I learn? The two most common “facts” are these.  In the US, 400 to 500 million single-use straws are used and thrown out (not recycled) every day and it takes 100 years for each straw to decompose, probably not completely.  So, where do they go?  Answer?  The piles of garbage in every landfill worldwide, the street gutters, then the waterways of our planet and ultimately back onto the beaches throughout the world, including our Bahias de Huatulco.

The second – and saddest – fact is this.  All marine life is constantly on the search for food.  They look at the bright colours of big and small pieces of plastic and often mistake them for food.  Eating plastic leads to death by malnutrition and smothering; the digestive systems simply get clogged and stop working.

In the year since we made our formal move to Huatulco, the world officially has read about five magical whales who died a sad and possibly painful death simply because they followed their instinct to eat virtually anything that looked like food.  A whale in the Philippines died with over 80 pounds of single-use plastic bags, garbage bags, and sacks for bananas and rice.  A pregnant sperm whale in the Mediterranean had two-thirds of her stomach, and most of her intestines, crammed with fishing nets and lines, and plastic bags, pipes, and household plates.  Dead as well was her unborn calf.

And we cannot forget the beautiful turtles throughout our region – it is beyond heartbreaking to hear of or see the entanglements they get in with the discarded fishing nets!

Defeating Your Fears

My fear here could be thought of as selfish.  What I cannot imagine:  a day going out for a sail from Santa Cruz and not anticipating the search for a beautiful whale fluke (tail).  I cannot imagine snorkeling without seeing a huge variety of fish and coral.  New recycling rules are now in place our household.  We were not very good at it!

My other fear is one that comes from my lack of confidence in my swimming skills.  I am afraid of the strong undertows and rip-tides.  While being selective about where I swim in the ocean is my first line of defense, my second is self-education.

Simplistically, this is what I have learned.  While I know it is easier said than done – RELAX and DON’T PANIC!

1. Learn how to spot a rip-tide. They show up at a gap in the waves just before they hit shore.

2. If you find yourself being knocked around a bit, the best line of defense is to RELAX and float and go with the flow.  These riptides will take you out, but they will not pull you down if you can relax into it.

3. Allow yourself to be taken out and out of the swirl (the force of the pull will dissipate) and then swim PARALLEL to the shore – away from the waves and the pull.

4. Then from the spot you know you are out of harm’s way, float until you are regain your strength and then simply swim diagonally towards shore.

Above all, listen to the life guards!  They really do know what they are doing.  The RED flag really does mean not to swim there! Ask the life guards where it is safe to swim and then find the eternal joy of enjoying the ocean and beach – cleanly and safely.