Take a cruise around the western Caribbean and chances are you will stop at the port in Progreso, just north of Mérida in the Yucatan. Getting off a cruise ship can take a while, but getting off the Progreso pier can take even longer. It’s a 6.5 kilometer (four mile) trip to shore.
Progreso’s pier was a mile long when it was inaugurated in 1942, and then extended to be the world’s longest pier in the 1980s. Now it can accommodate container ships and cruise ships.
Why so long? Or, better question, why is the water so shallow? The Yucatan Peninsula is the above-water part of a large limestone shelf that extends out into the Gulf of Mexico. It extends more than 100 miles undersea, mainly to the north and west.
At the very edge of that shelf sits the tiny Bermeja Island.
Over the years I’ve followed the island’s rise and fall. Bermeja appears from time to time in Mexican newspapers and has been discussed numerous times on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies, but the island has gone missing and no one seems to know where it is or if it was ever there.
Bermeja Island made its literary appearance in 1539 with the publication of “The Yucatan and Nearby Islands,” written by Spain’s Alonso de Santa Cruz. A year later, Alonzo de Chaves described the island as “reddish-gold” and placed it at approximately 22.3 degrees north latitude and 91.22 degrees west longitude – pretty much straight east of Tampico and north of the Laguna de Terminos. The island is shown on ancient maps as Bermeja or Vermejo, both derived from the Spanish for “having a reddish appearance.”
Over the next centuries most maps of the Gulf of Mexico show Bermeja. No one had reason to doubt its existence. On the other hand, no one went looking for it.
Now with billions of dollars of oil money at stake, the search is on.
The Gulf of Mexico has enormous unexplored oil fields. In the United States, oil rigs are ubiquitous in the waters off of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. While more than 38 percent of the gulf is shallow intertidal water where drilling is relatively easy, much of the Gulf is part of a deep canyon that reaches a maximum depth of 2.6 miles (4.4 kilometers). Until the technology of deep sea drilling advanced the potential to drill for oil in very deep water, the area outside intertidal boundaries was of little more than theoretical interest.
For many years, the United States, Mexico and Cuba all claimed portions of those reserves that fell outside the customary territorial waters – considered to be approximately 12 miles offshore.
In 1970, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea formally awarded each country “the right to natural resources within a 200-mile (322 km) Exclusive Economic Zone.” That means that each country controls a 200-mile band surrounding its territory.
Where claims overlap, the Law of the Sea requires competing countries to negotiate separate bilateral or multilateral agreements.
The 1970 ruling left two areas in the Gulf of Mexico disputed. They became known as the Eastern and Western Hoyos de Dona, better known as “the donut holes.” The Western donut hole is 6,744 square miles (17,467 square kilometers) and disputed by Mexico and the United States. The Eastern donut hole is 7,720 square miles (20,000 square kilometers) and disputed by Mexico, the United States and Cuba.
Bermeja Island is in the international waters of the Western donut hole. If Bermeja Island could be located, it would significantly extend Mexico’s portion of the donut hole and its bargaining power with the United States.
As all the debate, exploration, and gnashing of teeth continued, geopolitics changed. Cuba and China entered into an agreement allowing China to begin exploration in Cuba’s area of interest in its territorial waters and the Eastern donut. Meanwhile, the United States began drilling deeper and deeper in the Gulf of Mexico, pushing the limits. The ecological disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred at the deepest deep-water well.
Mexico frantically searched for the missing island but could find nothing. In 2009, the Chamber of Deputies ordered three investigations. Though the most advanced technology available was used, there were no results. Not only did investigators not find the island, they were unable to find evidence of an island ever having existed at, or near, the location specified on early maps.
Did the ocean rise? Did the island sink? Did a tectonic shift destroy Bermeja? Conspiracy theorists suggest the United States blew up the island to improve their economic interests, but early satellite photos – even from the 1960s – provide no evidence of Bermeja’s existence.
Could it be time to consider the possibility that Bermeja never existed? Could it have been invented by early mapmakers to mislead their rivals?
Regardless, 22.3 degrees north latitude and 91.22 degrees west longitude is located close to the northwestern tip of the limestone shelf that holds up the Yucatan Peninsula – where the gulf is still shallow and a small, perhaps unstable, island could perch.