Arizona dad ponders son's fate in lost-at-sea mystery

I must go down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life, 

To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife; 

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, 

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

— "Sea Fever," by John Masefield

CONCHO, Ariz. — The walls at John Davis' home in the White Mountains are plastered with photographs, each one a father-son memory worth more than 10,000 words.

Scores of framed pictures depict scenes from around the globe.

Many of them show Keith Davis, the peripatetic progeny.

In this one, he is bearded, catching sea spray in a rain slicker, with laughing eyes and a warm smile. In those, they are on safari in Africa; skindiving in Cancun; among orangutans in Sumatra.

Music fills the living room, a recording of Keith singing his own folk tunes and playing a mandolin.

This is the ghost a father lives with when his boy — his friend and traveling companion — has vanished without a clue.

This is where an unfinished life resides, along with figments of anger, filaments of hope.

The isolated dwelling, built by John in a juniper forest near Concho, is a museum of shark's jaws, journals, and other souvenirs from around the world. Keith's backpack from the final voyage rests on his bed, still full.

How does a dad explain the loss? The loneliness?

John looks at the pictures with glazed eyes, diving deep, retrieving memories like treasures from a sunken ship.

"We did a lot," he says, the voice husky. "We were best buddies ..."

There is a pause, a deep breath — and then a mischievous grin. "I'd be a father sometimes, too," he says with a wink.

An early sense of wonder

Keith was born 43 years ago at the same hospital as his dad, in Norwood, Mass.

They began fishing and exploring nearby bays in those early years, sharing a sense of wonder in the sea, a lust for adventure.

After a divorce, John moved to Arizona, working as a handyman. On a visit home, he remembers Keith, at age 9, making a declaration. "He said, 'I would like to live with you, Dad.' He told her (his mom). We had to jump through some hoops, and we were on our way."

John managed as a single father. Keith went to Saguaro High School, then earned a degree in evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in 1998.

"The minute he graduated, he was looking on the internet and saw a job offer in Alaska," John recalls. "And he never looked back."

Keith signed on with a fishing fleet as a professional observer. He had no authority or weapon. Just a notebook, a camera and a job keeping track of the commercial harvest. There are about 2,500 observers worldwide, more than one-third Americans. Theoretically, their role is to monitor catches and environmental impact, ensuring that international laws are obeyed and marine life is not wiped out. They spend months at sea, logging daily hauls according to weight and species.

Observers are employed by outside contractors or government agencies. As interlopers, observers are not embraced by crews that get paid per ton of fish taken. At least a half-dozen have disappeared at sea in recent years, accidentally or murdered. Many more have reported intimidation and abuse.

John says his son knew how to charm people with his smile and spirit. He was an entertainer, a student of religions, a lover of books. He shared his music with the crews, and tried to learn their languages.

Still, John says, Keith was a staunch defender of the oceans. So there was friction along with a difficult job description: "Just keep your mouth shut, and record it."

Over time, Keith became a leading advocate for maritime monitors. He served on the board of the Association of Professional Observers, and in 2013 helped draft the International Observers Bill of Rights. He also co-edited a book — Eyes on the Seas — full of stories and poetry by fishery observers.

By 2015, John says, his 41-year-old son was an old salt in a trade dominated by youth. Yet he kept going back. "He wanted to make the oceans sustainable," the father explains. "And he did his job well. He wasn't afraid of it.

"Keith knew how to handle himself. He'd get out his guitar, and music is the best way to communicate with anyone in the world."

Learning to enjoy life — together

As years passed, the two developed a sort of rhythm.

Keith would go to sea for months and collect good pay without expenses. Then he'd return to Arizona.

He started building his own house, right behind John's place. They'd eat dinner together and have a beer afterward, watching sports, playing cards or planning the next trip. When it got late, John says, "We gave a hug and a kiss and said we loved one another. ... I think that's the way it should be."

Eventually, they'd take off on months-long odysseys: Asia. Africa. Australia. South America. "We were travel buddies," John says. "We'd watch each others' backs."

John taught his son that money is made to be spent — to enjoy life. And Keith elevated that notion beyond a father's imagination. He spent a year teaching children in a remote village of Nepal, and went on a yoga quest.

"He lived a life people would love to have," John says. "He took it a step further than I could ever do."

Inevitably, Keith would feel the sea calling again, and pack up the duffel bag. "It was a reset button for him to think about his life's journey," John allows, "and to work on his projects."

Before leaving, Keith sometimes sang a Neil Young ballad as his paean to their relationship. The chorus goes like this:

Old man take a look at my life,

I'm a lot like you.

I need someone to love me

The whole day through.

John nods toward a thick, smooth pine-tree trunk that holds up ceiling beams in the middle of his living room. "Keith worked on that pole right there for a hours," he says, "just sanding it down."

Setting a dangerous course

In August 2015, Keith boarded the Victoria No. 168, a giant mother ship, and headed 500 miles off the coast of Peru to off-load tuna hauls from smaller fishing boats.

The Japanese-owned, Chinese-operated vessel was registered in Panama. It carried a split crew of Burmese and Taiwanese, and Davis would later learn on-board hostility had blossomed amid ethnic and language divisions. "They hated each other," John says, "and didn't even want to work together."

Keith, an outsider working for the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, reported to his company boss in Alaska. But he had no satellite phone or way to communicate ship-to-shore except via messages through the ship's captain.

John says he received an email in the final days indicating things were not right, but Keith wouldn't expound until his return to port.

According to Reveal, an online investigative magazine, Keith also was sending photos to a U.S. government biologist in Hawaii, complaining that fish were being loaded onto the Victoria without fins or heads. As a result, it was impossible to distinguish common big-eye tuna from expensive and protected species such as blue-fins.

One picture shows a net full of albacore being lifted from a boat as a fisherman points upward, apparently at the camera.

The Reveal story said Keith confronted shipmates about the suspicious catches, and about illegally dumping garbage at sea.

On Sept. 10, after observing another transfer of fish, Keith left the deck. Winds were light and the sea relatively calm. At 4 that afternoon, a crew member went to Keith's cabin with paperwork to be signed. No one was there. A shipwide search dragged into night before the captain put out a radio call. Finally, in darkness, fishing boats crisscrossed the oceanic expanse looking futilely for a missing mariner.

 

The sea yields no clues

In the White Mountains, 70-year-old John Davis got a phone call from the Panamanian consulate: "Your son has gone missing."

"I couldn't believe it," John recalls. "After being totally upset, I'm thinking, 'What can I do?' "

More than 6,000 miles away, he could only make phone calls and ask questions.

The Victoria did not return to Panama, but remained at sea 10 days. John says a U.S. Coast Guard official and FBI agents waiting at the port found the vessel had been cleaned and in some areas freshly painted. Panamanian authorities took charge. They never produced a final report.

"He's just missing. That's what they say," Davis adds, shrugging. "The whole thing ... was so mishandled, it was outrageous."

Afterward, someone posted a video that purportedly depicts a tuna fisherman declaring, "We got the sucker."

John shakes his head: "I have no doubt he was murdered out there."

Seventeen months have elapsed. A moment; an eternity.

One of Keith's last journal entries, quoted in the Reveal article, talks about his father: "If I can make the greatest man I've ever (known) proud of his son, I am a happy man."

John is planning a trip to Mexico this year, and talks about finishing Keith's house next door. "He would want it to be done. And, actually, I feel more comfortable talking to him over there than I do here," John explains.

The old man goes silent, reflecting. "Every time I go down to Phoenix, I think on my way back up that he might just be waiting for me," he says. "It's still a hope."

Some days, hope almost wins. Keith comes alive in the pictures and music. In memories.

"It's deep in my heart where my son lives," John says. "He's with me, ya know?"

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment