I took my first trip down Morocco’s coast this past week. I want to see as much of it as possible this year.
There are many natural scientists who think that to really understand the system you are studying, you need to experience it first hand. Count me in this group. As important as it is to look at the data coldly and analytically, it really helps to live and breathe your study system. If you plan to study sediment, it helps get your shoes stuck somewhere. If researching vegetation is your thing, then its useful to pull plant debris off your socks. To understand how humans are impacting the earth, it helps to see fishers haul their gear, and talk to people tending stoves, and watch children play around a dusty ecosystem. In Louisiana we routinely ask job candidates at the marine center how they will take advantage of the remote location where the bayou reaches toward the Gulf of Mexico. With this in mind, this past Sunday I travelled south.
Day one travel was by train, Rabat to Casablanca and then El Jadida. On the Rabat to Casablanca leg, I watched as palm trees, concrete structures, and the dry Moroccan ground rush by. The 50-mile journey took less than an hour, with stops, a better performance than I can remember during my train-riding days in America’s northeast. In Casablanca, I hopped off the fast train, and took a slightly slower, but still efficient one to El Jadida.
El Jadida is a beach town, and my hotel was a converted old house the Cite Portuguese. This Cite a beautiful stone fort, established by the Portuguese in the early 16th century with ramparts overlooking the harbor. The Cite Portuguese is a world heritage site, and there’s a large rock dike that protects the fort, the harbor, and the beach, which I’ll talk about below. This dike looked well designed and constructed, with a combination of wave breaks and concrete, and made me think that some folks here understood the importance of coastal engineering.
As I learned this trip, Morocco’s coast is filled old Portuguese forts. The Portuguese were famed sailors. In the 1400s they were the first Europeans to sail around the Cape of Good Hope and find a marine route to India. These forts were part of a long military and economic supply chain that linked disparate parts of the world. The trip was long- nearly 12,00 miles- and the Portuguese must have been looking for a way to shorten this route.
Sometime between their first trip past the Cape of Good Hope and the time they built El Jadida, they helped sponsor an expedition seeking a shorter, western route to India that unexpectedly landed in North America. As romantic as expeditions sound, as beautiful as the fort was on this bright blue and sunny day, there is a much darker side to this ocean exploration. It was the leading edge of a wave of conquest, which led to colonization, transatlantic human trafficking, bondage and brutality – the impacts of which humanity is still coping with today.
Leaving the fort, I checked out other parts of this beach town, which struck me as a locals’ kind of place. The beach is filled with people hanging out- some playing soccer, some heading into the water. Behind the beach there is a long boardwalk with cafes, light restaurants, and food stands.
Not far from the beach is the port, and the fish stands that line it. There’s a small road lined with tents and grills, and freshly caught sardines lying in the open air. The sardines, scales removed and covered with salt are thrown directly on grill. For 15 dirhams (a buck-fifty) they will put a bunch of these a plate and serve them to you. I’ve never had such fresh sardines- vaguely reminiscent of the canned ones you buy at the store- but sweeter, lighter and far more tasty.
The next day, I travelled further south to Safi to meet one of my Fulbright hosts. Samira Idllalene teaches law at Cadi Ayyad University’s campus in Safi. She’s a specialist in coastal issues, coastal law, and coastal policy. When I applied for this scholarship a year ago, she wrote a letter of support. As part of this project, I hope to work with her on an academic manuscript about sea level issues. During this trip, she offered to show me part of the coast.
From the Safi bus station we went up the hill to a cafe overlooking Safi and its port. With a knowledgeable guide, I could see the contrasts of the coast. The port is used by fishermen, some for recreational sailors, and phosphorous exporters. There’s a large rock wall that protects the port from the Atlantic’s waves.
That day, it was calm and the sea was clear. But the waves can be quite large in the winter, and below us there’s a world-class surf spot. The road to the surf spot had crumbled a few years ago- the rocks are part of an active fault. As the rocks are lifted up, they become unstable, and crumble into the sea. It is a contrast to coastal Louisiana, where I’m used to subsidence of the land leading to coastal erosion, and a reminder of how diverse coasts can be.
Just south of Safi there is a major phosphorous exporting plant. Morocco has the worlds largest phosphate reserves, something like 70 to 75% of the world’s phosphate reserves are here. You might not think much of phosphorous, but it is a major component of fertilizer. Those numbers on a bag of fertilizer, 5-10-5 or 10-10-10, that’s the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the fertilizer. There’s a good chance that the food you’re eating today was fertilized by Moroccan phosphate. Surfing, fishing, shipping, and place to drink coffee on a sunny day- there much to be had at the coast. There’s more to this adventure too- that I’ll share in the next post.
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