Francis Meyrick

A Blip on the Radar (Part 27B) “The Quiet Observer “

Posted on May 7, 2011

A Blip on the Radar

Part 27 (B) “The Quiet Observer”

One day we were told (by a displeased Captain) that we would be receiving an official observer on board ship, who would be making a trip with us. The news was greeted with annoyance by the ship’s officers, and by mild curiosity by the rest of us. We were in port in Papua new Guinea, offloading our cargo. We had not had an observer for years, and the very fact that the Department of Fisheries of Papua new Guinea was sending a duly delegated person to “monitor us” piqued our interest in the coming arrival of this worthy gentleman of import. There was speculation where he would be quartered, and the assumption was that he would have to be berthed in one of the officer’s cabins. After all, this was a V.I.P. representing the Nation of Papua new Guinea, which entity was invested with the power to grant or refuse fishing licenses to humble fishermen such as us.

In the event, his arrival surprised all of us. For some reason, I had imagined a tall black man in a good suit, with a clip board and a University Degree. What actually appeared up the gang plank was a shy, gangly, diffident youth of about twenty one. He was bare foot, with raggedy shorts and a stained T-shirt. For luggage he carried two white plastic shopping bags with his personal belongings. His hand nervously met mine, and he was overwhelmingly ill at ease. The Taiwanese and the Chinese are by nature very polite and respectful, and their inscrutable expressions registered nothing. But behind the mask, I knew there was amazement, contempt and ridicule.
The voyage got underway, and I was the only one who talked with our new ship mate. I found out he had been allocated the worst bunk in the ship, right beside the engine room, with little or no privacy. I also soon realized other things:

1) Our friend was challenged in the personal hygiene department, had a severe case of Body Odor, and didn’t seem to know how to use the showers. At least he never went there, and when he finally did, at my quiet prompting, he had to be shown the hot and cold taps, and how you mix the water flows together to achieve a comfortable temperature. I know, because I was the one that showed him… I knew this hygiene issue alone would seriously offend the Taiwanese and the Chinese, who are scrupulously clean people. Something told me this chap was from a primitive village, and that different cultural norms prevailed. I was deeply sympathetic,

2) Our friend, once you got to know him, and once he trusted you a bit to open up, was fascinating. He spoke softly, but feelingly, about many issues. Tuna conservation, the observer program, his homeland of Papua new Guinea, his struggle to become educated. He turned out to be deeply religious, carried a Bible with him, was intimately familiar with the contents, and carried an Old Testament biblical name. Soon we walked the limited space of the lower working deck for hours, and we talked and discussed a massive variety of subjects.

It was from him I learned that the observer program paid a salary (provided by the boat company) that was excellent by local standards. But that, nonetheless, there were very few volunteers for the post. When I asked why, he told me, with an expressive nod of his head towards the ship’s bridge, that none of the observers were ever made to feel remotely welcome. I knew what he said was true. And I could sense how the cultural divide would discourage the locals. Perhaps it was meant that way, including the cold shoulders, the horrible bunk beside the engine room, and the atmosphere of aloof frigidity. I was the only one who he talked to.

The days went by, and my new friend, who I shall call “Isaiah”, impressed me -hugely- with his knowledge of Tuna conservation issues. When I described to him times when I feared we had disrupted a spawning event, and possibly done major ecological damage, his eyes lit up, and he asked a million questions. When I described to him the rivers of young Tuna, flowing, flowing, across the Ocean, for mile after mile, he was enraptured. I told him I had followed those rivers of Tuna, and that the fish were small to tiny, but that there were millions of them. The rivers were often only twenty yards wide, but I had followed them in my helicopter for ten, fifteen miles, and still not come to the end. Nothing but tiny tuna, nose to tail, swimming their little fins off, going exactly where Mother Nature was guiding them, as they had done for thousands of generations. I told him that we never made a set on them, (they were far too small), but that I had heard other fishermen were not so squeamish. He nodded, understandingly, and told me that is why he was an observer. He was studying, at a college run by missionaries, and he spoke of them with great warmth.
We talked of Papua New Guinea, and his eyes shone with a great pride in his country. He talked, very honestly, about the crime and the corruption, but also about the natural resources and the endless possibilities. He talked about his people, and the future. I saw him quietly happy, and softly sad. He was amazingly aware, and amazingly interested.
His knowledge of the Bible was astounding. We would move on to the subject of God and Man, and the meaning of Life. He would pull out his Bible from a well stained pocket, and instantly flick to the passage he wanted. That he, in his way, loved his God, was clear to me as the stars in the skies. I admired him for it, or perhaps I envied him. I don’t know.
A few weeks had passed, and meanwhile his treatment on board had not changed. People pulled faces behind his back. Or held their noses. The ship’s officers simply ignored him. He was tolerated. That was all. When we caught fish, he would be there, observing, and occasionally taking measurements. He had no camera, which surprised me.

The day it happened, luckily I was there to see the whole thing go down. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I had landed half an hour earlier, and the ship had made a successful set. We had about a hundred tons of large Yellowfin in the net. At $1,700 a ton at that time in the nineties, (more today), the value of the fish caught in the net was a cool $170,000. The captain was at the hydraulic control panel on the middle deck, which looks down on the lower working deck, where all the fish are being brought in. From there the captain controls the nets, and barks his orders (usually with a lot of histrionics) over the public address system. I was standing there watching, and so was the Deck Boss. Our quiet observer was standing silently in his usual spot, ten yards away. Observing.

Suddenly some dolphins surfaced in the net. About four of them. They too were caught in the net. I sighed to myself. Not good. In the western half of the Pacific, dolphins and porpoises follow the tuna, and used to be caught in the nets and killed by the hundreds. Environmentalists successfully raised an outcry, and the fishing boats were forced to put in dolphin escape hatches, and employ sailors to specifically help those mammals escape. That reduced the death toll dramatically.

In the eastern half of the Pacific, where we were, for some strange reason, dolphins and porpoises do not follow the tuna anywhere nearly as much. Which is why we rarely caught them in the net. You would go for a month, six weeks, without catching any. If you did catch them, most would escape by simply hopping over the floating cork line. I have even seen a small whale crawl out over the cork line. An extraordinary sight. But if the dolphins had pups with them, then the risk of death became acute. The adults would not leave their pups. I had risked my life one day trying to save two pups and five adults, all to no avail. I couldn’t get a grip on them.
So now I watched, sadly, these four dolphins. I hoped they would escape. But it was a fifty-fifty chance. I always wondered why the captains would not release the nets (let the catch go) ever, under any circumstances. Even if they only had four ton of Tuna in the nets, or just one ton, they would not let them go for the sake of twenty dolphins. Now, with a hundred ton of valuable large Yellowfin in the net, these four dolphins were on their own. There was no way, Jose, this captain would ever release the nets and kiss goodbye to $170,000. No way…

Isaiah was there in a flash. His face was stern. I had never seen that expression before. Not on the little black dude from Papua.


His finger pointed authoritatively at the nets. He stood stock still and his gaze never left the captain’s face. The captain looked totally flummoxed. The Deck Boss opened his mouth, shut it, and opened it again. I carefully suppressed a snicker, and quickly turned my face to neutral.

This is going to be interesting…

The captain stared at him, his hands on the controls. Then he looked at his deck boss. The deck boss looked baffled. Then the captain looked at Isaiah. Then the captain looked at me. I looked back. Careful not to show any expression at all.


Isaiah was rock firm. The finger was still pointing. His face was granite.
The captain licked his lips. Looked at his deck boss. Looked at me.
The captain looked bemused. He looked again at the black, granite face beside him. He started to say something. Mutter a protest. Thought better of it.
There was a clank. The sound of chains rattling.
The nets were opening.
The dolphins were saved.
I wanted to cheer. It was tough, keeping a straight face, when in reality I was busting my ass laughing…

* * * * *

Isaiah stayed with us for one trip, and we never encountered any more dolphins. Nor did we catch any under size specimens. Nor did we disrupt any spawning grounds. If we had encountered any rivers of young Tuna, swimming nose to tail for miles and miles, I know they would have been perfectly safe with Isaiah on board.
I was the only one who said goodbye to Isaiah, as he stepped off the ship at Wewak. I shook his hand warmly, and wished him every success further. I wonder where he is today, but I hope his fellow countrymen have realized his great potential to lead a new way ahead for Papua new Guinea.

Francis Meyrick

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Last edited by Francis Meyrick on May 19, 2016, 6:08 am

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