A speck appeared in the vast bluish-green waters of the sea off the starboard bow of the MS Aquarius. Edward Taylor, the tall 28-year-old project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, sprinted through the alley of the four-decade-old, 253-foot search-and-rescue ship operated by MSF and SOS Mediterranee.
“Get ready,” Taylor announced to his team. “About 30 minutes out to a rescue. A rubber boat has been spotted.”
It was midday, Jan. 12, and the Aquarius had been in the waters off the coast of Libya for less than 24 hours in what was to be a three-week journey seeking migrants heading from Africa to Europe. Over the course of the ensuing three weeks, the boat would rescue 342 people. It has already saved 1,823 so far this year.
On this day there were potentially many people to rescue. A break in the harsh winter weather meant an increase in boat launches from the Libyan coast. The previous day, the Marine Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome issued a bulletin for all rescue ships in the area to be on the lookout for a rubber boat filled with migrants in distress. When the Aquarius reached the coordinates, late in the evening, there was no boat to be found. Moments later, a rubber boat came within sight.
Rescue workers began shuffling across the deck, pushing large plastic boxes filled with prepared emergency kits. They prepared bags of life jackets and the marine crew started getting the rugged inflatable boats ready for the rescue.
Yohann Mucherie, the search-and-rescue coordinator, gave a rundown of what had been spotted from the bridge to his rescue team on the back deck of the boat.
All 28 crew members and relief workers on board were ready. “Slow is steady and steady is fast,” deputy search-and-rescue coordinator Max Avis advised his team, as the two jetties launched in the water.
The boat with migrants was packed, filled with more than 120 people. Among them was Kelvin Okle, a 19-year-old Nigerian. He said he’d lived three years in Libya laboring to scrounge up enough money to pay for his passage. He had traveled north with his father, who died about a year ago. At one point he was kidnapped and beaten. “They told me bullets are cheap — they are one dinar. I can buy more and kill you,” he recalled. “I’m really happy I’m far away from that dead country.”
On the first rescue jetty, Oussama Omrane, who serves as a translator and cultural mediator, began a prepared message to calm people and explain the next steps. As the second jetty, the one dedicated to the rescue, sidled up alongside the rubber boat, Avis explained to migrants that water rising inside the boat was normal due to the weight of the boat. Water had started filling the boat from the stern, and it was shin-deep now. The migrants appeared afraid but remained calm. The rescue workers slowly distributed life jackets to the migrants.
“Here!” one migrant shouted to the rescuers. “I need one!”
Transferring migrants from their vessel onto the jetties is the most perilous part of the rescue. Once during bad weather, rescue workers accidentally punched a hole in a boat filled with migrants, and it started flooding. “I don’t know how we made it, and nobody was killed,” recalled Mucherie, the rescue coordinator. “I was almost sure we would not be able to bring everybody safe on board.”
Tensions on the boat rose as migrants, including teens and women, jostled against one another to reach the rescue boats. The worst scenario, in the winter weather, is when people begin to jump off the rubber boat in panic. Hypothermia and exposure are deadly. This time of year freak storms are common.
After back-and-forth hauls ferrying the migrants to the Aquarius, the jetty always makes a final trip back to the empty rubber boat. This is the grimmest part of the rescue, when the aid workers check for dead bodies. Oftentimes, bodies lie under the pieces of wood at the bottom of the rubber boat.
As the migrants boarded, they were checked for fuel on their clothes and skin to reduce the risk of fire and burns. Those who smelled of fuel were immediately washed down and told to put on clean track suits given in the emergency rescue kits. The kits also included a small towel, a big blanket, high-energy biscuits, a pair of socks, and a bottle of water. Many drank nothing but seawater for hours.
Then the women were separated from the men, as is standard in every rescue, and directed to a place inside the ship called “The Shelter,” where a counselor spoke to them and offered them the chance to discuss any trauma or sexual violence they may have experienced along their long travels. “You can get stuck with some bad people in Libya,” said a woman named Lovitt, a Nigerian who spent five months in the country before making the passage. “And they won’t let you go.”
If they need medical care, they are given an exam. If they are pregnant, there is a midwife on board.
After a few hours, rescue workers began distributing food to the migrants, heated-up bags of vegetable stew called “Adventure Food.” The rescue workers listened to Manu Chao and Bob Marley while they prepared the meals. They also checked the migrants for scabies and other ailments. Those with scabies, wounds, or any other illness received various colored bands on their wrists, so they could receive specialized care once they arrive in Sicily. To monitor for medical emergencies, potential violence, or any other troubles among the migrants, two rescue workers in shifts watched them at all times.
Once used to conduct marine exploration for oil and gas deposits beneath the seafloor, the Aquarius these days is packed tight, filled with a nine-member sailing crew, two chefs, 20 rescue workers and medics, and up to 400 people during winter.
The migrants are escaping war, poverty, and political oppression, paying smugglers thousands of dollars in hopes of making it across the sea to a better life. More than 360,000 migrants arrived by sea to Europe last year. In January, 5,932 arrived with 254 dead or missing, according to the International Organization for Migration.
While the Aquarius is at sea for weeks-long stretches, the boat and its crew are on constant standby, serving as a floating rescue vehicle, ambulance, clinic, and homeless shelter at the same time. Saving lives at sea is both perilous and expensive. The rescue efforts are funded by donations to various relief groups back on shore. “We are not part of the smuggler’s business, and we need money, otherwise we won’t be able to continue,” said Mucherie. He said fundraising efforts are complicated by persistent false rumors that the relief groups are in league with the smugglers transporting migrants across the desert and onto boats.
“A lot of people think that the fact that we are here make people leave from Libya, and they wouldn’t leave if we were not here," he said. "And I know it’s not true, because people keep on leaving even when we are not here.”
A day later, the crew were alerted about a large rubber boat with many migrants on board. The crew and rescue workers approached the distressed craft and began the laborious process of ferrying the migrants to the Aquarius — 193 people total.
Afterward, one of the rescue teams went to the rubber craft to check for dead bodies, and discovered two young men, mangled under the wooden planks.
MSF doctor Anja Batrice concluded that the likely cause of death was asphyxiation. Sometimes, if fuel leaks or creates fumes it makes people fall into a sort of high; they collapse semiconscious to the bottom of the rubber boat, and if the boat is filled with water, the toxic mix of water and fuel may drown them.
The jetty with the bodies was pulled on to the boat, the bodies placed away from the rescued migrants at the back of the ship. Food and clothes were distributed as night fell.
Then a few hours later, an Italian navy ship loaded with another 109 rescued migrants transferred its passengers to the Aquarius to free itself up as it re-entered the search-and-rescue zone.
The Aquarius was heading back to Sicily with nearly 300 people aboard the next morning when the weather took a nasty turn. Waves reached 10 feet high. Many of the migrants on board, natives of landlocked enclaves new to the rigors of the sea, began vomiting.
The next morning, excitement filled the air on the Aquarius. The migrants had spotted land — Sicily. The ship was ordered to disembark the migrants at the port city of Messina. The process took longer than the crew expected, as the Italians took only five at a time. Italian authorities delayed the disembarkation as they wanted to register the migrants at the port rather than in registration centers. Some migrants were forced to sleep another night on the ship. The next morning all the remaining migrants disembarked and the ship returned once more to sea.
For the crew of the Aquarius, the rescue efforts have become a way of life, an obsession even that absorbs them even when they’re on land, spending time with their families. “There is no middle,” said Alexander Moroz, the Aquarius’s captain. "You either like this job or you don’t like this job. I like this job. I like what we’re doing. The feeling is that you’re doing something good. You’re in the right direction. You’re helping. I’m always in contact with the people on board — I follow what the ship is doing. I’m not on board, but let’s say part of me is still on board.”
Moroz acknowledged a kind of culture clash between the seafarers who’ve long made a living on ships and the young idealistic rescue workers. “They are full of energy,” he said. “They are full of bravery to save the world.”
However, life on the Aquarius is not governed by ideals but a series of simple but strict rules. You’re not allowed to run. If there’s a storm, you should keep the windows closed. Keep in mind that you’re crammed into a small space with a lot of people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. During off hours, the crew and rescuers try to find some normalcy by organizing backgammon tournaments or exercising on deck.
“It’s like sharing a big house with other people, except that you cannot escape,” said Mucherie, the search-and-rescue coordinator for SOS Mediterranee. “So you have to comply with a few rules otherwise it’s a mess.”
SOS Mediterranee is in charge of the search-and-rescue operations including the jetties and the training of rescue personnel. Médecins Sans Frontières is in charge of medical care. Many of the SOS Mediterranee workers are unpaid volunteers. Few of them have families.
“People always say, when you look back in history, they ask why didn’t people help them out, why didn’t people do things differently?” said Edward Taylor, the MSF coordinator on board. "I can guarantee you in 70 years' time, or 50 years' time, or maybe not even that long — maybe a decade — people will look back and say: 'Well that was a mistake and that was a real fall down in human society.'"
The crew members said they are haunted by too many tough days to remember. “I find this whole thing tragic, quite frankly,” said Taylor. “We’ve had situations where we’ve got 22 dead bodies on board that were all women.”
None of the volunteers can foresee a day when the search-and-rescue missions will end, except maybe if Europe follows through on proposals to cut off all processing of migrants making their way across shore. But few believe that would stop the flow of migrants. These are people willing to leave their ancestral homes because of war or other miseries, trek across the desert for days to a foreign country such as Libya, which is mired in war and banditry, and then board a rubber dinghy which has almost no chance of making it to Italy. A change in policy in Brussels or Rome won’t stop such people.
“I think the best will be one day to stop the mission because there is nothing to rescue, nobody to rescue,” said Moroz, the captain. “I really hope it’ll happen one day.” ●
Sima Diab is a photographer based in Cairo.
In January 2016, 370 migrants died. An earlier version of this post misstated that this year's death toll was three times higher than that.