The Night Patrol
In Costa Rica’s Nicoya Gulf, a few dozen kilometers off the coast of Pájaros, the fishermen of Isla Chira are just beginning to pull their old boats in to the mangrove-speckled beaches on the Palito shore. Night is descending; a storm is coming in. The low rumble of a motorcycle breaks the silence of the cool waves lapping on the beach, and soon all the men are gone, but two.
Gabriel Cruz is preparing his boat to ride out into the storm with his younger nephew. They will spend the next twelve hours on patrol for poachers, moving up and down the clock of night and listening eternally for the casting of a net; enforcing the laws of the protected waters. They tell me this storm won’t be enough to stop the poachers, so they must honor their agreement. I ask the men the most difficult part of this responsibility, and they both reply, without any hesitation, “the loneliness.”
Years ago, over-fishing in the Gulf drove the fishermen to establish regulations for themselves— they banned trawling nets and committed to using small size seven hooks to avoid catching juvenile fish. Their foresight and tireless protection of the imperiled fisheries has allowed the aquatic populations to begin a slow recovery.
“But,” Gabriel says, “there are always people who don’t go by the rules.”
Now Gabriel is bringing the gas can down to the water’s edge, where his boat sits tilted in the mud waiting for the tide and for the veil of night to fall. I will go out with him tonight to comb the bruisey darkness for the lights of poachers, to listen for the spray of water from the casting of a net. We will drive the line between the buoys of the past and I will lose the count of hours, until he lets the engine die and runs his boat aground onto a sandbar in the middle of the Gulf, the spine of some submerged and unseen creature. The fisherman will leave the boat and I will follow him, not knowing where he is going, where I am going, where we will end up. Then he will point down at the water moving at his feet, and I will see the sparks of bioluminescence glinting in the surf— thousands of microscopic glowing creatures filling the water with the light of existence, and I will understand why the men agree to spend these long nights patrolling in the cold; what they are protecting; what they have to lose. These fireworks will go on bursting in the cool swells of the ocean long after we have gone, and that night we will find no poachers, but in a few hours the sun will rise and the fishermen will take their boats out once again, and the air will fill with the sound of many hooks—size seven— hitting the water as they cast their lines.