Flying fish spun away from the bow of the boat, skimming the water on translucent, wing-like fins. They glittered beneath a pouring sun, each one gliding over the glossy waves for up to fifty metres at a time, the kind of fantastical creature you’d long to invent if it didn’t already exist. White water suddenly plumed near the boat. Heaving free of the sea, a sunfish, the heaviest bony fish on the planet, had broken the surface before sinking back under. Nothing in its appearance was like its name might suggest – instead it was a vast and ghostly moon drifting down into the darkening blue. Farther off, a shark nicked the strait with the sharp blade of its dorsal fin. Dark shapes then loomed on the surface like buoys. Feeding largely on nocturnal squid, a pod of pilot whales was resting after night dives; social and matrilineal animals, they floated in small groups, their black backs slick and glistening with sunlight and spray. I could hear their breathing from the boat – so distinctly mammalian and similar to our own – as each of their resonant exhalations rose clear of the sea.
Iris Anfruns could decipher individuals from amidst the pod of pilot whales, seeing shapes in their dorsal fins that were as unique as fingerprints. A biologist with Tumares, a whale-watching and marine research outfit based in the southern Spanish town of Tarifa, she talked me through the importance of the Strait of Gibraltar for cetaceans. Slung between Spain and Morocco, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean and the tectonic plates of Eurasia and Africa collide, the narrow strait is an uncommonly rich feeding ground, its combination of opposing currents – together with a shelving sea-floor terrain – creating a nutrient-rich water column that feeds diverse assemblies of plankton, fish and crustaceans. And in the wake of this marine feast follow cetaceans.
Water bubbled and rolled in the slipstreams. The whole sea was suddenly a roiling cauldron where common and striped dolphins assembled around a school of fish, the enormous pod twisting and spearing in unison through the quaking waves. Whatever was visible from the sun-splashed surface was a mere fragment of the underwater drama, as the fish swirled into the coiled net of the diving dolphins, dragging them down into the deeps. Rising to breathe, one of the hunters broke the level plane and formed an arch in the air. It was followed by another, then several more, as the whole mesmerising pod rippled away through the noon-blue glare, dozens of dolphins now vaulting in sequence like a series of detonating charges, curving high over the water with all the sparkle and shine of the sea on their sides.
At varying times of the year, the strait’s charismatic quartet of resident cetaceans – pilot whales, common, striped and bottlenose dolphins – is joined by orcas, fin whales and sperm whales, each of these behemoths playing its singular part in an electrifying symphony of marine mammals. They make the sea sing with the enlarging register of wild wonder. Life in such a compact environment as the narrow strait isn’t without its ordeals, however, the most ubiquitous of which is plastic. Shorn of all its oceanic grandeur when it washed up bloated and dead, the sperm whale discovered on a south-eastern Spanish shore in the spring of 2018 had its stomach and intestines clogged with twenty-nine kilos of largely plastic debris.
“It’s our fault, everyone’s,” says Iris, scanning the strait for signs of movement. “Plastic is everywhere now.”
“We’re told to recycle,” adds Cristina Martín Bernal, a fellow biologist for Tumares, “but that’s not the solution to the problem. It’s important to make people aware that it’s not necessary to use a lot of plastic, and to make sure governments understand this.”
Many of the environmental education efforts of Tumares are specifically devoted to raising awareness of this fragile marine environment to children. “They’re the future,” says Iris. “They’re the ones who’ll make the difference.”
“It makes a big impact on children when we see a dolphin while out on the boat with a plastic bag caught on its tail,” continues Cristina. “Or when plastic rings from bottles are stuck around their beaks so that they can’t feed. The kids start asking their parents why we’ve done this.”
Plastic is only one of the threats, though. The daily passage through the strait of 400 container ships and other large vessels, not to mention myriad ferries and fishing boats, forces dolphins and whales to run a dangerous gauntlet of spinning propellers and dispersed streams of leaking fuel. And the cacophony of underwater sounds emitted by those ships – including sonar from nearby naval bases that can damage the hearing of whales – disturbs cetaceans to such a degree that a recent study discovered bottlenose dolphins simplifying their signature whistles to make them more easily understood by others in the pod, as though they were shouting above the din in a noisy bar. Elsewhere, humpback whales have been recorded going silent in response to the clamour of their surroundings. Sound is at the very heart of cetacean society, the complex matrix of sophisticated language around which dolphins and whales maintain contact and familial bonds. It’s the agent of their intimate, underwater exchanges, and these striking physical responses to acoustic pollution could have damaging, long-term effects on their ability to successfully communicate with one another. But despite its dangers, cetaceans continue to convene in the busy channel in impressive numbers, testament to the pull of that prosperous strait.
All animals – human as well as non-human – have long gravitated towards places where opportunities for sustenance, shelter and stability exist, following natural instincts to not only survive but thrive, especially when the alternative options are dire. And so above the cetaceans of the strait pass people – not solely those tourists, fishing crews and biologists drawn to the rich fecundity of its waters, but refugees and migrants as well, who seek plenitude in the form of another continent. Fleeing political unrest, chronic poverty, war, hopelessness and repression in some African nations, they’re trying to reach the relative safety, security and prospects of Europe. To find a more promising future on the far side of that strait.
Before meeting Father Gabriel Delgado in Cádiz, I’d seen a banner unfurled across the town hall, hung there by the Andalucían Human Rights Association: For a Europe with Open Doors – Borders Kill. Like the Italian island of Lampedusa and the frontier region between Mexico and the United States, the shores of Spain are a focal point for human migration. Even in perfect conditions, though, it’s a risky crossing, when the overcrowding of inflatable rubber boats by profit-hungry people smugglers can make even the smallest mistake fatal. From January 2018 until the beginning of December that year, 51,984 migrants safely reached Spain across the strait, while a further 675 lost their lives. In the past twenty years, it’s estimated that 6,000 have perished in the crossing, while the bodies of countless others have never been found at all.
“It’s a terrible, tragic disgrace,” says Father Delgado, describing not only the horrific loss of life but the lack of a safe crossing because of the EU’s exclusionary migration policies on its external borders. Directing the church’s migration assistance centre in Cádiz – called Tierra de Todos, meaning Land for All – Father Delgado, who has worked with migrants and refugees for the past twenty-five years, believes a “humanitarian welcome” for new arrivals is essential. One of the centre’s programmes pairs local people with recently arrived migrants in reciprocal companionship. “We ask people to go out and walk side by side with a migrant to see what they need,” explains Father Delgado. This pastoral care, alongside job training and language classes offered at the centre, enables dislocated and often traumatised people to better adjust to and integrate with their new surroundings, but it also grants local residents the opportunity to comprehend some of the immense and often alienating challenges facing newcomers from other cultures, religions and traditions. It’s fundamentally about bringing people closer through the simple, yet transformative, act of solidarity.
“There are two discourses about borders,” explains Father Delgado. “Open borders or closed borders. For me it’s better to shift the question to the person. Where are the people in all of these processes? Because the dilemma won’t be solved through either of those opposing approaches.” Propounding a progressive, left-wing political perspective through a Catholic spiritual lens, Father Delgado questioned the entire framework of an economic system that simultaneously encourages and debases migration. “Wellbeing is the central reason why people want to move, but current movements are all oriented towards the place where the economic circumstances allow increased wellbeing, or what is understood as wellbeing. But while capitalism absolutely needs this flow of people, further concentrating capital, power and money in that place, they’re understood as labour, not as people.”
Explaining some of the centre’s wider work, Father Delgado showed me a campaign poster. On the left of it, an image of a girl knocking on a wooden door was captioned: The Right to Live in My Country with Dignity. On the right, the same photo of the girl, her eyes looking directly at the camera, said: The Right to Migrate with Dignity.
“These are both basic human rights,” says Father Delgado. “The right to migrate or not migrate with dignity. They’re not in conflict. These are principles that have to guide any debate, political or any other kind. Otherwise you’re always talking about flows and numbers. Firstly, we need to put the human at the centre of our work. Secondly, to resolve migratory problems in the future you need in Africa a structural economic system that retains people there, but in a way that doesn’t repeat the modern capitalist system. There are many things we have to develop as human beings – the capacity to love, the capacity for creativity. We need to change Europe and Africa so that everyone can develop as a human being in ways that are democratic, honest and real.”
Father Delgado’s thinking has been sharpened by the many lives lost in the strait. None more so than that of Samuel Kabamba. Only four years old when he washed up on the Andalucían beach of Barbate in 2017, Samuel had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo with his mother, Véronique Nzazi, whose body eventually surfaced on the Algerian coast two weeks later after the dinghy they’d been crammed inside had sunk. In her poem Home, Warsan Shire describes the awfulness at the heart of such tragedies: “you have to understand, / no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land.”
The causes of displacement – war, poverty, injustice, climate change – are as human in origin as the dangers faced by the cetaceans of the strait. And whether people or whales, they perish because of such ruinous triggers, too. “We need to keep telling the truth about these lost lives,” said Father Delgado. “We need to find the kind of action that fights indifference.”
On the second Wednesday of each month, people gather on the shores of southern Spain. Long-standing residents and recently arrived migrants form circles of silence in acts of communal solidarity, commemorating the sea’s dead while also calling for an altered response to the migration crisis. They acknowledge the stories, dreams and fears at the heart of each crossing. “When you are in a circle, you are a group,” says Father Delgado. “And when someone arrives, the circle needs to expand to make room for that person. So the circle, opening and closing, is a powerful image. There is no religious aspect to it, the idea is to integrate everyone, whatever their background.”
And on a shared yet fragile planet, where dolphins, whales and people cross paths in the perilous strait, such essential solidarity could be applied to the other-than-human world too, so that circles of enlarging concern for all vulnerable lives continually open and close like the valves of the heart.
This is the third in a four-part series exploring the history, biodiversity, cultural traditions and associated bird and human migrations of the traditional salt pans of Southern Spain and Morocco. Part one can be read here and part two here. This article first appeared in Lush Times.