Act now to save the Mediterranean | WWF

Act now to save the Mediterranean

Posted on
19 November 1998
North Sardinia: We are coming to the end of what, as it happens, was designated the Year of the Oceans. It might, I suppose, just as well have been called the Year of the Forests  and the forests would have continued to burn, their rapid disappearance from the planet totally disregarded by the governments that signed treaties for their protection. Equally, it could have been the Year of the Atmosphere, and the industrialized countries would continue to pollute the ozone layer and overheat the surface of the earth with their emissions.

All these absurd and painful events can easily lead to pessimism. Fortunately, however, the fact that there are organizations and individuals who devote their efforts to the conservation of the environment, and who insist on deciding collectively what to do with our planet, gives a ray of hope in the midst of so much materialistic blindness.

One late afternoon by the sea in the north of Sardinia I watched the sunset with a group of friends. Suddenly, we heard the unmistakable song of whales coming from the sea. It is an acute sound, startling to those who hear it. I had seen and heard whales before  near Greenland, in the Gulf of California, in the Valdes Peninsula, and in the Atlantic mouth of the Straits of Magellan. But that evening in Sardinia was the first time I had heard them in the Mediterranean.

Later that evening I saw a number of them emerging from the waves displaying the majestic movements characteristic of big cetaceans  first their rounded heads, then their backs bent over the water, and, finally, their tails lashed the waves or plunged back into them, like gigantic, dark butterflies.

Whales have been found in the Mediterranean since long before the Romans named the Gulf of Genoa's shore the Costa Balenae, or when the town we now know as Portofino was named Portus Delphinii. They were there feeding the imagination and generating wonder, a reminder of the limitations of human existence, the inspiration of legends such as the Leviathan, suggesting a notion of elementary respect for the larger forms of life.

Looking at those whales on the coast of Sardinia that afternoon, I could not help shuddering at the state of the sea they were in. Never in the history of mankind has a sea been so ill-treated as the Mediterranean today. It has been plundered to the near extinction of many species by all possible forms of illegal fishing, its waters polluted by every sort of amateur sailor and people who use the sea for fun  pastimes they could just as easily seek in Disneyworld.

Obviously, there is no census of the jetskis or of the criminally fast motorboats that cut through the waters of the Mediterranean every day. We do, however, have endless reports of collisions with dolphins that are torn to pieces by propeller blades, as well as hundreds of testimonies from fishermen who, from their slow ships, powerlessly witness the games of the wealthy as the cetaceans pass in front of their motorboats.

There are two products of human ingenuity that I particularly abhor: the power saw and the outboard motor. Millions of blades tear through the forest or move the waters of the Mediterranean as though the sea were an enormous blender preparing a concoction, not for the idlers in the motorboats, but for the inhabitants of the sea. We know that it is very difficult to legislate against market forces  especially when the market concerned is that of irrational leisure. It would be even more difficult to achieve an international law to limit speed, pollution, and the sailing zones of summer pseudo-sailors.

But a first, necessary step towards saving the larger sea creatures from extinction is the creation of a protected sea area, a park where animal life is allowed to develop and procreate. This is particularly urgent in the Mediterranean.

But I am pessimistic when it comes to changing the attitudes of rich holidaymakers. Nevertheless I would like to believe that in the not too distant future some industrialist or banker, instead of giving his teenage son a jetski, will invite him to the place in the north of Sardinia where I saw the whales, and show him the most fascinating of gifts. There that boy, together with the fishermens' children, will marvel at the spectacle of cetaceans moving freely in their protected area.

We still have time to save the whales and the dolphins of the Mediterranean. We still have time to give back to the sea of civilizations a small measure of what we have looted from it.

(773 words)

*Luis Sepulveda is a well-known Chilean writer