During the 1980's I spent time cruising the west coast of South America on oceangoing tugs. The company I worked for specialized in bulk cargoes and hearty ports like Antofagasta, Chile; Callao, Peru; and Guayaquil, Ecuador. Although such places handed me lots of exotic experiences, there were two that stand out, if only in terms of their total, jaw-dropping weirdness.
The first entailed a brief conversation I had with a Chilean port superintendent in Antofagasta. I'd just suggested we close our hatches because it looked like rain. "No, I don' think so, seor," he replied as clouds darkened the cordillera. "It has not rained here since 1942!"
The second was not so much an experience as a series of experiences or even visions. Every time we rounded the horn of western South America—a vast sandy promontory claimed partly by Ecuador, partly by Peru, and seemingly as treeless and bone-dry as Antofagasta—we saw an almost stupefying abundance of life in and above the ocean, well beyond anything we were seeing in other parts of the world: otters, manta rays, whales, sharks, dolphins, tuna, mackerel, shearwaters, boobies, gulls, condors, pelicans.
I remember the first giant school of baby dolphin I saw. We were well south of the Gulf of Guayaquil, not far off the Peruvian coast, and I'd just tossed my dividers onto the chart table after plotting a noon sextant shot. As I glanced aft through the wheelhouse windows to check on the barge lumbering along behind, baby dolphins appeared to starboard and kept appearing, playfully zooming, sporting, and cavorting in a magnificent glistening array. There were thousands! "Waaaaaa!" exclaimed our Honduran skipper, Capt. Ernesto Comacho, a man seldom surprised by anything.
Seafarers are talkers and speculators. And Camacho and I, as well as everybody else onboard, pondered endlessly the scientific explanation for the phenomenon. The theories were legion. But it was only a few weeks ago, as I began researching this story about what was once the greatest big-gamefishing destination in the world, that a reasonable (at least to me) answer surfaced.
Nearly five decades ago a handful of adventurous, globe-trotting fishermen fell upon a stretch of deep Pacific blue water that was supernaturally bountiful. Just a few miles west of a small fishing village in Northern Peru called Cabo Blanco ("white cape"), it was so permeated by marine life that it steadily attracted the largest Pacific pelagics extant at the time. Indeed, on April 4, 1952, Cabo Blanco—or rather, the cold waters between a mile and four miles west of it—offered up what remains to this day the largest marlin taken on rod and reel: a 1,560-pound black caught by avid angler and Houston oil man Alfred Glassell, Jr.
Where precisely was this fabled chunk of marine real estate? My recollections say that "Black Marlin Boulevard," as the place came to be known during the 1950's, was close to one of the coastal sea lanes we used to follow on our way to and from Antofagasta. Maybe it was even the same one that produced my vision of thousands of baby dolphins 25 years ago.
Of course, a good deal's been written about Cabo Blanco over the years, not only by famous writers like Ernest Hemingway and Kip Farrington, Jr., but also by modern scientists like Jason Schratwieser of the International Game Fish Association. So there's no shortage of intelligence discourse concerning the area's incredible abundance in the '50's and particularly for the fabulous numbers of hulking black marlin that frequented the area. Indeed, there were so many blacks in the water back then that anglers typically eschewed blind trolling in favor of sight-fishing with pitch baits that they simply tossed at tails and dorsal fins from the cockpit!
Oeanographically, Cabo's a special place. It presides over a fortunate confluence of ocean currents. From the south the bone-chilling Humboldt comes sluicing up from Antarctica, only to turn west across the Pacific in sight of Cabo's towering white cliffs. And from the north the warm Ecuadorian (Pacific Equatorial) current comes down along Ecuador's coast and then, in sight of the same cliffs, mingles with the west-bound Humboldt. During the '50's this mingling engendered an especially strong, cold, nutrient-rich upwelling of sea water that burgeoned with unprecedented numbers of anchoveta (Peruvian anchovies). The anchoveta supported an enormous ecosystem, with pelagics and big-game fishermen topping the food chain.
The fishing was indeed magnificent. Glassell caught his record black in the spring of 1952, and by the end of the season, some 16 more monsters were hauled over the transom, each tipping the scale at more than 1,000 pounds. Such a statistic would be fantastic by today's offshore fishing standards, but it's downright mindboggling in light of the limited numbers of fishermen in this remote little spot at the time.
Cabo was not your average ol' fishin' hole. For starters, it was expensive. Joining the prestigious Cabo Blanco Fishing Club right after it opened its doors in 1953 cost $10,000, a sizable chunk of change even today. Yet the clubhouse was small, tenuously constructed on land leased from the Lobitos Oil Company and outfitted with only ten rooms for members and their invited guests. Moreover, it was difficult to get to, requiring a nine-hour flight (with stops in Panama and Ecuador) from Miami followed up by a rough-and-ready drive from Talara, site of the only nearby Peruvian airport. And there were only three sportfishing craft on hand: small, tough, Downeasterly looking, twin-engine specimens built in Nova Scotia and delivered to Cabo by ship. Miss Texas, the feisty little vessel that put Glassell in the record books and his fish in the Smithsonian, was just 40 feet long, although she sported a flying bridge, an enclosed cabin, and a cockpit fighting chair. Her two sisterships were slightly smaller.
Hardcore types came nevertheless. Hemingway spent several weeks at the club in 1956 helping film the movie version of his Old Man and the Sea. When not advising on technical matters, Papa reportedly sampled the local pisco (white-grape brandy) with characteristic vigor and also caught three large fish, one a 910-pound black marlin. Other celebrities made appearances, including major-leaguer Ted Williams, actor John Wayne, and then-New York State governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Several factors contributed to the end of it all. Most notable, the anchoveta population plummeted in the '60's and early '70's in large part due to an unusually severe El Nio event in the Pacific. More specific, as the event took hold, the gradient between high barometric pressures in the eastern Pacific and lower pressures far to the west diminished, and with that came a relaxation in the trade winds. Warm water that had been for years blown west into the tropics gradually began to cling to the coast of South America instead, thus curtailing the cold, nutrient-rich upwelling that had sustained the anchoveta and by extension the huge pelagics.
Two other culprits played a part as well. First, commercial fishing for anchoveta (and the fish meal produced from their tiny silver bodies) increased dramatically even as their numbers declined. And second, during the '60's, Peru was taken over by a military strongman who proved decidedly unfriendly to fishermen.
Cabo Blanco today? In my opinion the return of giant blacks to Black Marlin Boulevard seems distinctly possible, particularly in light of the apparent resurgence of abundance I witnessed in the '80's. The globe-trotting host of ESPN's Big Game Fishing the World, Capt. Norm Isaacs, seems to concur.
"Somebody told me they're catching the really big ones at Cabo Blanco again," Isaacs said to me recently. "So, after I figure out hotels and flights, I may just go down there and see for myself. Probably this year, in fact."
This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.