Coming or returning to the Azores always seems to entail some adventure for Les Gallagher. Coming back from his time in Florida was no different. He was hired to bring a big game fishing boat, on a cargo ship specialised in the transport of boats across to Gibraltar, put the boat in the water and then drive it to to the Azores, where the shipping company didn’t want to stop.
His boat was carried on the aft deck and not inside the hold were all the other boats where, which turned out to be very fortunate. Shortly after leaving Florida and south of Bermuda they ran into some bad weather and the largest boat, a 25m motor yacht, that hadn’t been well secured, started moving on her supports which eventually started pushing other boats and causing chaos inside the hull. By the time the crew eventually able to secure all the boats a lot of damage had been done. Thankfully, not to Les’s boat, still safely tied alone up on the deck.
On leaving Florida, the owner of the boat had asked Les to try and convince the ship captain to drop them off in the ocean, close to the Azores, thus saving time and fuel. When they were 200 miles south of the Archipelago, the weather was fantastic, with incredibly calm seas, “In my life I’ve never seen the sea so flat for so many days. Like glass!”, he tells me. Les was finally to wear down the ship captain’s resistance when they were just 110 miles south of Santa Maria island.
Les was feeling a bit nervous. The manoeuvre was complicated and it involved dropping Les’s boat on the water, very slowly towing it using a line from his bow to the stern of the big ship, and then dropping the straps while simultaneously releasing that line and reversing the engines of the fishing boat to avoid a collision and clear the straps. But one of the straps got caught around the tower of Les’s boat. Les thought quickly and was able to release it, but subsequently things became complicated when the second strap suddenly came tight again on the keel, knocking Les of balance and then as it came loose again it carried him up into the air before landing him in the water some distance in front of his boat. When he surfaced he saw that the bow line connecting to his boat had been released and was floating close to him. He decided he had to stay with the boat. With a few strokes he was able to grab it. He was crawling along the rope, with his unmanned boat towing him in reverse and 110 miles from the nearest land. Looking back he remembers the huge amount of black smoke pouring out the ships stack as they hastened to turn the ship around to get after him. He found himself hanging of the bow but unable to get up onto the high foredeck. After numerous failed attempts and with the ship now along side he eventually, with a last burst of pain and energy, managed to clamber onto the deck. Through the radio he assured the ship that he was OK and wanted to go on his way, but they asked him to come back, close to the ship. “We want to take a photograph. We need proof that you’re still alive.” they said.
He headed to Santa Maria with his new boat. It felt great returning to the Azores, alone on the boat, the beautiful blue ocean around him, after facing a life or death situation. “You feel so alive! Once again it’s one of those situations that become etched in stone in your memory”, he shares.
But it must have been one of those special days when everything seems to be possible, because as he was arriving in Santa Maria he saw two sport fishing boats, and he couldn’t believe it. They belonged to the company who he had worked with previously out of Ponta Delgada and the crew were also very surprised at seeing another big sport fishing boat arriving from the south? …, and even more so when they heard a greeting in English accented Portuguese: “Epá! Está tudo bem?” and saw that it was their old pal, Les, driving it. The coincidence became even bigger because they had two journalists on board. One of them was Joop Koster, that had written the article that made Les, decide some years before, to head out to the Azores.
1996 was a very special year, that marked the reappearance of bluefin tuna in the Azores, that hadn’t been seen for 10 years. And Les was there, fishing with clients on the Azores bank. It was a regular day. He’d seen 2 or 3 blue marlins when he noticed a large and peculiar aggregation of birds approaching the bank from the west and decided to follow them.
When he got closer, the scene was unforgettable: A huge school of tuna had pushed masses of chicharros (mackerel) and sardines to the surface on one side of the bank and “the sea was boiling” with activity. In one small area there would be something like 70 or 100 big tunas, leaping around “like great dinosaurs”, eating the mackerel, an “epicentre of drama, there was so much air and fish oil in the water it became neon blue, the fish were just flying”. This was not just in one area, because half a mile away there was another one, and another one, and another one, “as far as we could see. The birds became dense above these pockets of activity like spinning black clouds.” His heart was pumping, adrenaline rushing, “no one ever gets to see this”, he tells me.
For two weeks, these tunas stayed on the Azores bank every day. With so much fish being pushed to the surface, the bank became like a big marine zoological park. Between the schools of tuna there were blue marlin, white marlin, dolphins, Mako sharks, everything was so close to the surface. “It was like a wonderland”, Les recalls. Once again the Azores proved to be the place of his dreams.
Yet another of Les Gallagher’s passions is drawing and illustrating marine life. He has been drawing most of his life, and naturally the marine environment became his main theme. Quite by chance, he heard about a book on the marine species that was being put together by the University of the Azores. He went to see the scientist in charge, a well know name in the islands, Dr. Ricardo Serrão Santos, who asked him: “Do you think you could draw this?” and he finds him a thornback ray from their specimens collection. A few hours later he came back from the laboratory with a drawing in his hand. Dr. Ricardo looked at him and asked him in disbelief: “How did you do that?” That was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted many years. He worked on the communication gap between scientists and the general public, creating images that reveal natural beauty, inspire intrigue and engage people. Les started working on scientific illustrations and completed nearly 500 original species drawings in China ink.
This was 1994. This collaboration with the University marked him deeply and Les considers them as some of the happiest years in his life. It was also around the time of meeting his lovely wife Isabel whose family was from Cedros and the birth of their daughter, Catherine.
For a long time Les was aware of the marine ecosystem problems. He had seen the over fishing and its effects while still in England. His uncle was a commercial fisherman and he used to tell him: “You can always make a living from the shore”, trawling for fish, for shrimp or by cockling, but a time came where you couldn’t do it any more. Depletion of marine resources was possible and Les saw it first hand in his home town. He also saw the first signs of this when he arrived in Ponta Delgada. The scientists from the Azores University were also quite aware of these growing problems. With that and the experience of other regions in Europe, at the time he was certain that the same thing would never be allowed to happened here. But unfortunately it has, and today the effects of over fishing are very visible also in the Azores.
His art remains a central part of his life. It’s a case of a long lasting love affair with the ocean and its creatures. “You take a fish out of the water and it’s like a miracle of 60 million years of evolution”, he says, with visible emotion on his face. The same emotion you can see and feel in the careful detail of his illustrations.
While doing all of this, he still found time to learn about traditional Azorean stone masonry and rebuilt a ruined stone house in the village of Capelo, here on Faial island. He worked with some of the older local stone masons at the weekends. He remembers clearly the first strokes of the hammer in the still morning air, the beautiful green landscape around the house, the smell of the dew on the grass, the cloud of dust as the hammer hit the stone, the sound, once again the emotion of being so close to the pure nature of things and men. He describes the old stone masons that have done that all their lives, “you can see it just by the way their hands hold the handles of hammers, it becomes like an extension, an integral part of who they are”. These are the sort of moments that truly explain his love for these islands and you can’t avoid feeling that it is a pity that Les decided to specialize and only draw marine wildlife, because there is much more that his artist’s eye could capture and share with the world.
Currently, he’s starting a new adventure. The rebuilding of an historical, but derelict old building in the centre of Horta and the opening of an eventual oceanic marine interpretation centre, that will double as a cluster of small local businesses steered towards the sustainable use of marine resources and local materials and that promote respect for the environment. It is a place to show and sell his illustrations, but also a centre to promote increased awareness about the oceans and their problems. The images he creates are a powerful tool to inspire, teach and motivate people regarding the fabulous wonders we find beneath the azorean waves. As is the case of other passionate fishermen, Les is deeply engaged with the protection of the Azorean marine environment.
To power all of this project he opened the hot new bar in town: Oceanic, where he did almost all of the woodwork himself and where he sits to talk to me. The place reflects a lot of his founder’s mind. A large high ceiling room with large doors open to the street, Les’s illustrations of marine wildlife hanging from the walls, with long wooden tables and a big wooden bar, where locals, sailors and tourists gather each weekend, sharing drinks, stories and laughs, to the sound of Faial’s most recent bands playing live. Simple, authentic and fun.
Like in many other of his adventures, like in the trip from England to the Azores, Les knows where he is going and what he’s hoping to find, but doesn’t have a specific idea on how to get there. “But we’re on our way. We’re getting there. You don’t try, you don’t catch.”, he tells me with his fisherman’s philosophy.
Les continues having an intense passion for these islands. He tells me about the raw unbelievable beauty of the Azores: “Every time I come back I’m awestruck and have this immense sense of privilege of living in such a beautiful place.” It’s the passion that keeps him moving.