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.
“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.
Into the Archives
Specialists at the Society helped me to check the Geographic’s archives later that afternoon; Mr. Godfrey had not lied. His image had indeed made it into the pages of the magazine in early 1972, but his warnings of environmental destruction had not. In contrast, the article and captions highlighted the potential economic benefits of Belize’s increase in “scientific farming,” which was then a recent shift away from traditional practices.
Current Society staff also contacted photographer Mike Long, who had no trouble remembering his Belizean comrade. “What did you say? Skin diver?” came the voice over the phone. “Villamar Godfrey! … A really good guy … One of the best I met in all my 35 years with National Geographic.” He then recounted stories of diving, shooting photos, and dining together on the beach with a pot of lobsters caught by Mr. Godfrey himself.
As the photographer for the story, Mr. Long had visited Belize several months after author Louis De la Haba. He spent many long hours on the reef, asking “many, many questions” according to Godfrey, and shot more than 330 rolls of film which he submitted to the magazine with basic caption information. He didn’t recall Godfrey’s environmental warnings, but deferred to the fisherman’s recollection, saying “his memory would be better than mine.”
After our two conversations, I am still not sure if Mr. Godfrey realizes that in 1969 he had preached his message day after day to the wrong set of ears. When asked, he shrugs in puzzlement as to why the article makes no mention of the reef’s fragility. “I told him the government was killing the reef,” he repeats.
The article was written when Belize was on the verge of independence, tourism, and agricultural reinvention. Had he toured in Belize in 2011, I believe author De le Haba would have written a very different story. “There have been many changes. And our story is not the same. Oh yes, the article would be different,” says Mr. Godfrey softly, whilst staring at the grainy image of his 36-year-old self.
A Different World
He gestures with crooked fingers to the changes to his hometown. The post office/late-night dance hall featured in the article was torn down long ago. In its place, tourism outfitters now stand, shaded and well signed. Outboard motors and an ice machine made it faster to get product to market–and now, to hotel restaurants. No more “dry corning” and salting before tacking back from the reef.
Sailing is mostly for sport now. Over 40 gleaming sailboats, under many different flags, point north on their mooring near shore. Thinking back to the Geographic article, I envision thousands of Jim Gavegan’s who have since been seduced by the country’s pristine cayes and ketch-ready winds. That evening, near the village center, we pass a hand-painted billboard which reads “Wee noh waa no cruise ship eena wata.” There’s a speech bubble above a cartoon dolphin wearing sunglasses: “You’ll destroy our reef.”
“This (type of) coral is all gone now.” Mr. Godfrey points to the colorful branching gem pictured in his Geographic photo. “It was special to lobsters ‘cause it gives the best hiding. All this coral died, up and down the coast here. It never came back.” Mr. Godfrey’s hand motions northward and southward.
The coral he is referring to is elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), now a rarity on Belize’s barrier reef and all-but-gone from its near shore reefs (watch a video about elkhorn coral). According to scientists, the likely culprit for its demise was indeed runoff pollutants from the land, coupled with other stressors. Recovery of the species has been complicated by overfishing, temperature-associated disease, and the increasing occurrence of hurricanes (watch a video about the impact of weather on Belize reefs).
A Treasured (and Shared) Memory
Mr. Godfrey kept a copy of the article Belize, The Awakening Land for over 25 years. Hurricane Mitch destroyed his coastal home in 1998. With a category-five blow, the tempest took the salted and stiffened yellow-bordered magazine from January 1972 and all the other National Geographic issues that Mr. Godfrey had kept. He enjoys reading and does so ferociously. He tells me that reading is how he knows so much. His formal education stopped at about 6th grade.
A world away, Mike Long has kept a print of one of the photos not used in the final article, framed on the wall of his home. In it, “Villamar and the fish are side-on with both angled a bit downward, still in life and death confrontation…It is a composition which I would like to say is memorable. But beauty is in the eye of the picture editor!”
If I could get my hands on another copy of that issue, would he like me to send it to him? Chuckling with just the splattering of teeth remaining, Mr. Godfrey says calmly that it would be nice to have again. “Just write my name over the words Placencia Village, Belize. It will get to me.” I scoured eBay later that evening for that January 1972 issue. My searches came up empty and my gut ached. All I could muster up was a grainy scanned image of page 127, which I printed and gave to him before I left Placencia. Staffers are sure they’ll be able to find a copy though.
A few days later, I reviewed my notes from Mr Godfrey’s interview to write this blog entry. On paper, his words don’t quite surge with the strong nostalgia that I feel for Geographic’s relic image of muscle and man on an idyllic reef.
In my notes, Godfrey describes his National Geographic photography session with the sort of lightness one would attribute to any other momento: “enjoyable,” “pleasant,” and “nice.” I had probed for more details about his time with Geographic photographer Mike Long. Which places did you show him? How did other fishers react to your newfound paparazzi? Did your appearance in the magazine bring any changes to your life? He dismissed my questions of the past with polite laughter. But, with great urgency, he would talk about present reef conditions, in Belize and elsewhere.
More than once, he referenced the Great Barrier Reef–the only barrier reef in the world larger Belize’s. He read about devastating bleaching to the Great Barrier Reef in another issue of Geographic. “If scientists are correct, Australia’s reef will soon be dead. And so will ours.” He folded the grainy print out that I had given him and shook his head.
Mr. Godfrey seemed no longer interested in old photographs. He’s focused on the present, the future, and his ever-urgent message.