Fishy business

The reporter called to talk about dolphins. Over the past months, bottlenose dolphins have been sighted in the estuary, and as would be expected, they were smartphoned, digitally enhanced, tweeted, and presumably instagrammed.

Now this is no ordinary estuary. By area and volume, it is the largest estuary in Europe, holding almost two billion tons of water. Metric tons. It’s where the caravels left for India. The origin of modern globalization. The Tagus estuary receives water that has come all the way from Madrid, as the ‘Tajo’ river, in the Castillian form, meanders across the border to become the Portuguese ‘Tejo’.

Perched in the middle of the river, about seventy miles upstream from Lisbon, is the ancient castle of Almourol, reputed to be pre-Roman. In The India Road, I describe it through the eyes of a carrier pigeon.

The racing dove had turned at the frontier, flown south across the Beiras, over the old Jewish synagogue at Belmonte, and then rotated west once more, following the course of the Tejo. He flew the thermals, saving his energy on the air currents caused by the interplay between the suffocating plains and the cooler Tagus waters. Now far below him was the castle at Almourol, once home to Vandals, Visigoths, and Berbers. Like a bull’s-eye in the middle of the majestic river, it had been extended by the Knights Templar and was now in the hands of the Order of Christ. As the weary bird turned and coasted toward the palace, the king heard the fluttering wings, and his heart lifted in hope.

The pigeon brought the Perfect Prince news of Castille, and of the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas, that split the undiscovered world in two halves through a meridian line. King John II had ordered his negotiators to push the line two hundred and seventy leagues west of the original plan, to include Brazil in the Portuguese half. Global politics at its best. This is robust circumstancial evidence that Brazil was already known to Portugal, but not to Spain, in 1494.

Skiffs used by the Tagus fishermen in the last quarter of the XXth century. The boats had a covered deck at the prow, and were powered by a small outboard and oars. When the vessel shipped water, you baled.

For the press, bad news is good news, but in this case the guy was going to do a spread in the Sunday supplement of a national paper, and he wanted to write that the dolphins were back because the pollution levels had fallen. I used to go out on the river a lot in the 1980’s, and I wish I had some digital snaps to show you from back then. I boarded a fifteen-foot skiff like the one above, and the fisherman who took us out had three gods at home: Sport Lisboa e Benfica soccer club, the Virgin Mary, and the Portuguese Communist Party―I truly believe I have those in the right order.

We used to see cuttlefish aplenty in the estuary, and sometimes they were headless. According to the fishermen, the headless cuttlefish meant only one thing: dolphins. What I told the reporter was that the ‘new’ dolphins were probably the old dolphins’ progeny. Maybe there are more. There is more recreational sailing. More folk with digital cameras. Less ferries because of the financial crisis. And dolphins don’t care for noise.

Speaking of which, the melomania next door has remained remarkably quiet so far. Phew. And through a bout of old-fashioned neighborly espionage, we discovered that it is in fact the deaf old man who plays atrociously, rather than the teenage boy (the jury is still out on the youngster’s musical skills). So biological adaptation has worked as it should, the old man went deaf so he couldn’t hear his own playing. Uncle Ludwig is of course the exception that proves this rule.

Pollution is a ‘big’ word, and neglects that waste comes in many forms, some of which don’t pollute at all, but are required for life. Until you have too much. Kind of like my views on alcohol.

And dolphins are sexy. Undeniably so. As are killer whales. But not great whites. Sexy indicators appeal to people, and the logic of your average joe is pretty linear, so if you have dolphins, you don’t have pollution. Well, if you have less fresh water in an estuary, that may increase how far a dolphin will go upstream. Because like me, they’re not overly fond of fresh water. And they hunt for marine fish, not only of the cuttle persuasion, and those too will go further upstream in a drought.

Dolphins, like wolves and lions, were not always species to be preserved. To people in many parts of the world they still aren’t. In medieval Sicily the bluefin tuna fishermen actively persecuted dolphins, and a reward was offered for the head as proof of capture. Seals, another emblematic species, are extremely partial to cod. So fishermen and seals do not see eye to eye.

Sexiness is of course not confined to animate objects. We’ve extended the concept to the world of objects around us. The thing that’s nice about sexy is that it’s binary. You can’t be a little sexy, just as you can’t be a bit communist. Software can be sexy. Or not. Microsoft has never been sexy, No one can accuse Windows, or Bill Gates for that matter, of being sexy. Adobe is, Apple is, Google is. IBM never was. Blackberry phones are totally devoid of it, IPhones and Androids sizzle with digital sexiness.

Color is irrelevant. You can have sexy lingerie black and boring business black. And just so I’m not accused of sexism in my choice of links, here’s one for the ladies. That site is truly bizarre, and I confess the term ‘rooster pouch’ was a revelation. In fact, a caption like Men’s Junk in the Trunk Musical G-string has Built in Speaker complete with “Elephant Sounds Effects” speaks volumes (sorry). I bet even the guys had a look.

Politicians can occasionally be sexy, but not in this case. An irresistible cartoon from the UK's favorite satirical magazine, Private Eye.

During World War II, fish stocks in the North Sea made a remarkable recovery due to the dissuasive effect German U-Boats had on fishing, I expect unemployment, economic misery, drastic cuts in factory production, and yes, people eating less, will have an impact on the quailty of the water in Southern European rivers and seas.

In an environmental twist of the wonderful monument to bad taste Springtime for Hitler, the fish thrive in austerity.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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