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Old 04-19-2011, 08:07 PM
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RickI RickI is offline
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Default Nat. Geo. - Skin Diver Tells His Full Story, 40 Years Later

An interesting story in National Geographic from the year after I started diving, while there was still abundant Elkhorn coral in the world, staghorn too, the seas weren't excessively hot yet. Even then there were concerns and forecasts of deterioration to come, from some of us anyway. Villamar was concerned as was I in the same year about serious water quality degradation from dredge and fill, surface water runoff full of nutrients and more. Others seem to be content to identify the problem after the train wrecks including some in government. It was a younger time although a good deal was to change radically over the next few decades and beyond.

"Original 1972 Caption: “Amid a forest of coral, Belizean fisherman Villamar Godfrey spears a jew-fish. Working to nearly 40 feet with only face mask and flippers, the undersea hunter dives for six hours a day. Late each afternoon he cleans and salts his catch for local sale.” (The name “jew-fish” dates to at least the 17th c. when an English sea caption wrote “The jew-fish is a very good fish, and I judge so called by the English because it has scales and fins, therefore a clean fish, according to the Levitical law, and the Jews at Jamaica buy them and eat them very freely.”)"

No more jewfish despite being around for centuries, now they are goliath grouper. Their populations seem to be coming back with a passion, something else is perhaps out of balance.

"By Clare Fieseler, NGS Young Explorer Grantee

His back muscles are taut. Poised, and with perfect buoyancy, Villamar Godfrey is pictured yanking a 30-pound jewfish from a spectacular colony of elkhorn coral. Godfrey, now 77, stares at a grainy scanned image of page 127 from National Geographic’s January 1972 issue. “His name was Mike Long. And we were together for about a week,” he recalls. Just one image and one caption made it into the final story, but now 40 years later, Villamar Godfrey’s story takes center stage.

A Chance Encounter

I encountered Mr. Godfrey, as he is known, while talking with artisanal fishermen in Belize. Funded in part by a National Geographic grant, colleague Roberto Pott and I have been interviewing active fishers over the past two weeks to assess a recent conservation law. At first glance, Mr. Godfrey seemed too old for our project. I passed him by multiple times while surveying fishers in the coastal town of Placencia.

At 77, Villamar Godfrey has raised ten children and can still skin dive. Photo by Clare Fieseler.

He was the first to put on a mask and fins in this town,” a younger fisher gestured. The old man nodded unassumingly from under a shady tree. The other milestones Mr. Godfrey had marked were equally as impressive. He co-founded the town’s thriving fishing cooperative. He discovered many of the region’s “drops” — or fish spawning aggregation sites — which are still productive and, now, closely managed. As the great-grandson of an English pirate, Mr. Godfrey discovered and mentally mapped the locations of the many still-secret pirate wrecks in Belize. He raised ten children and passed on his knowledge of fishing to many of them, as his father had done for him. At 77, he can still skin dive.

A Man With a Message

Mr. Godfrey’s knowledge of science and the environment is what most impressed me. Of the thirty-odd fishermen I spoke with last week, he was the only one to mention climate change as a threat to Belize’s fisheries. “The North and the South Pole are melting. The temperature is warming up there and it will get warmer here too, which kills the corals that fish need.”

He spoke of threats, both global and national. “The farms ruined everything. The fertilizer and chemicals from citrus (production) is killing our reef. I tell everyone. I even told that to the journalist from National Geographic who took my picture.” Still unaware of this part of his story, I interrupted his train of thought: “Wait, when was that?”

“That was in 1969,” he replied."

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Rick Iossi
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