Field Report: Vieques Side Trip

With three intense days of meetings for the Science Specialists meeting behind us, we felt we needed a break and spent a day visiting Vieques. The meetings had been the second phase of our Vieques Project, which was also a parallel Working Group, along with two other working groups (Technology and Policy) for the upcoming IDUM, the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions. Everyone paid their way on this excursion, which I organized quite separately from any of the official activities, given ongoing sensitivities about U.S. work and liability there. There were eight of us on this little adventure, from different parts of the U.S. (including Paul Walker and myself), Norway, Germany, and Italy. We met in time for a 6:30 a.m. start and drove from San Juan to Fajardo, an hour away on the east coast of the main island of Puerto Rico (casually referred to as PR).

The reason for the unearthly starting time is simply that there is only one ferry. Also we were advised to get there early, particularly on a Sunday morning, as one has to stand in line in a very noisy hall and there was no way of booking ahead. This stood in stark contrast to the modern, no doubt expensive, and glacially air-conditioned ferry, leading one to wonder why so much money had been spent on the hardware and nothing to streamline the booking and boarding process.  We had been warned against the cold in the ferry cabin so were armed with sweaters or jackets. What was really disturbing about the process of buying tickets (certainly not the price, which was only $2 each way) and boarding was the knowledge that with cancer rates on Vieques more than 30% higher than on the main the island of PR (or mainland USA), there is no chemotherapy on the island and patients must endure this ordeal backwards and forwards every time they schedule treatment.

The scenic ferry ride brought us past the Island of Culebra and an hour later we were on the 21 mile long Island of Vieques. That this beautiful island had been the sight of relentless bombings as a firing range for the U.S. Navy, Army, Marines and many NATO allies for about sixty years was difficult to imagine. But the devastating consequences on human health and the environment are still evident, ongoing, and felt deeply.

So, to get on with our day. We were met by our guide and friend from our last visit, Angie Adams, and proceeded straight to the old fort, built around the 1840s, which is also a museum. There we were greeted by the very knowledgeable and colorful Roberto Rabin, a transplanted Bostonian teacher whose life's passion has been to bring justice to the people of Vieques, this "colony of a colony" as he calls it, whose people and habitat have suffered so much. Our visit to the fort and museum, which traces the history of Vieques back to 4,000 year-old artifacts, started with a heart-wrenching and beautiful film, both from the visual and sound perspective. The short film, which was shot in 2001 at the height of the protests which eventually culminated in the U.S. Navy's ceasing military activities there in 2003, was called "The Song of Vieques."

After the film, and an informative and moving account from Roberto about the protests ten years ago, we went outside the fort to gaze at the view. One of our number, Rod Mast, Executive Director of the Oceanic Society in California, donned his Mr. Leatherback costume for yet another photo for Mr. Leatherback's website. I should explain that this was one of many photographs taken in nearly 90 iconic locations around the world, with dignitaries of all types in such places as the Great Wall of China, to bring awareness to the serious plight of sea-turtles worldwide.

We followed this with a quick lunch at a local "al fresco" cafe -- grilled mackerel, rice and beans -- washed it down with local PR beer, and drove to several parts of the island, from Isabel Segunda on the northern coast to Esperanza on the southern, and as far east and west as we had time for and were allowed to go. The "high impact" area on the far east tip is one of the sites strictly off limits due to the continuing realease of toxins from decaying munitions.

We also visited some beaches, including Caracas Beach (the link with Venezuela goes back to the Latin American liberator, Simón Bolívar -- a story in itself). At the next stop we saw bunkers, indistinguishable from little hills from one side, except for vents if one looked closely, and with massive concrete fronts on the other.  We were told that there were six of these huge storage areas in that particular location -- we saw they were numbered -- and were informed that they had been used to store "equipment." Strange that someone had gone to the trouble of painting over the signs of the contents if this was the case.

Apparently there were also another 125 underground storage locations in the area, for ammunition. The last, somewhat hurried stop before catching the ferry back to Fajardo, was at La Ceiba, a huge tree proven to be between 400 and 500 years old, from around the time of the first Spanish explorers. This remarkable tree flowers only once every five years and this year, 2012, had witnessed a bumper crop. The trip back on the ferry gave us time to reflect on what we had seen. Heavy Sunday afternoon traffic returning to San Juan contrasted with the lush and still strangely beautiful island we had just left.  We made it back in time for the reception for the official opening of the Fourth IDUM, the International Dialogue on Underwater Munitions.