Hunt for scientific treasure in Hemingway journals


COJIMAR, Cuba (AP) - Ernest Hemingway's love of the sea and eye for detail have scientists hoping that a visit to Cuba by the author's grandsons will open access to his fishing logs, which may be a treasure trove of information about the state of deep-water species before they were diminished by overfishing.

Patrick and John Hemingway launched a five-day mission to the island Monday intent on helping improve U.S.-Cuba ties and gaining permission for researchers to study the aging documents.

Traveling with a team of U.S. marine scientists, the two men sailed a massive, gleaming white sport-fishing yacht to the seaside village that inspired their grandfather's Pulitzer-winning "Old Man and the Sea."

An honor guard of aging local fishing boats and a crowd of hundreds cheered the Hemingways as they gathered around a bust honoring their grandfather.

"He was a fisherman," Patrick Hemingway said. He looked at the local men who welcomed him, then added: "He considered them his brothers."

Scientists are optimistic the trip could allow them to review Hemingway's fishing logs, which could help them piece together details about the Florida Strait's deep-sea fish populations over the last 75 years. Such information could improve efforts to protect the species that sustain Cojimar.

Researchers gathered little data in the years before industrial fishing devastated populations of tuna and other highly desired big species in the second half of the last century. That leaves sport fishermen's records - typically containing details of the numbers of fish caught, the location of the catch and weight of the fish - as some of the only resources for marine scientists seeking a benchmark to measure population declines.

One of the earliest and most prolific sport fishermen in the Florida Straits, Hemingway lived in Cuba from 1939 to 1960 in a villa on lush, orchard-filled grounds in the village of San Francisco de Paula on the southeast edge of Havana. From Cojimar, he often launched his boat, the Pilar, with first mate Gregorio Fuentes, who helped inspire the aging fisherman who battles a giant marlin in the "Old Man and the Sea."

That has scientists hoping Hemingway may inadvertently have created an unparalleled scientific resource with the logs he kept as he prowled some of the world's richest fishing grounds for marlin, sharks and tuna.

"Hemingway was there in Cuba for 20 years. If he did keep log books for that long, having 20 years - even if it is only for a single vessel - would be very valuable," said Dr. David Die a U.S.-based fishery scientist. "It would be a record of relative changes in the size and the abundance of fish over a period where we do not have any other records. It's exactly the type of information that we use nowadays when we assess populations of fish in the ocean."

Hemingway assembled thousands of books, photographs and journals, many of which deteriorated over decades of exposure to Cuba's baking heat and high humidity, and the longstanding neglect of the estate known as Finca Vigia. The logs are now kept by Cuba's National Cultural Heritage Council which, in order to protect the fragile documents, only allows conservators to handle them.

The U.S.-based Finca Vigia foundation is working with the Cuban council to preserve the house and Hemingway's many documents. Mary Jo Adams, executive director of the Boston-based foundation, said she has seen some pages of Hemingway's fishing logs, which list everything from what Hemingway and his guests ate for lunch on a certain day to how many fish they caught and the timing of the tides.

The foundation is helping Cuban curators preserve and digitize thousands of the most significant documents in the Finca Vigia. Adams said she believes many of the fishing logs may be bound and at less risk of deterioration since they have not yet been studied closely.

Cuba's National Cultural Heritage Council declined an Associated Press request to see the logs ahead of the scientists' trip, saying only conservators could enter the storage room where most of Hemingway's documents are kept.

Apart from the fishing logs, the scientists and game-fish experts traveling with the Hemingways have other goals: They hope Cuba will agree to participate in an ocean-wide program of genetically sampling white marlin and spearfish to better track them and measure the health of the species across the Atlantic. They would like organizers of an annual Cuban fishing tournament named after Hemingway to require anglers to use circular hooks, which are less-damaging and make it easier to catch and release fish. They also hope Cuba will allow scientists to import satellite trackers which could be attached to fish caught during the tournament in order to study their movements once they are released.

The researchers acknowledge the difficulty of winning approval to bring in such equipment, which is looked at with suspicion by Cuban authorities.

Adams said, however, that Die's hopes of finding scientific information in the logs may be well founded.

"He kept records of everything," she said. "I suspect the fishing logs would be just as detailed."

Die acknowledged it remains far from clear whether he'll gain access to the logs, although he expects to know more after meeting with Cuban scientists and cultural officials later this week.

"Whether they even allow us to touch them, it depends on the curators," he said. ""It's an open question."