Aita Mari, originally named Stela Maris Berria, was built in Pasaia in 2001 and was dedicated to traditional bonito fishing in the Cantabrian Sea using hook and live bait until 2018. It retains its port registry in Getaria, and in 2018 it was transformed into the humanitarian aid and rescue ship that it is today. It typically conducts its humanitarian work along the migration routes of the Mediterranean, hence it stays in operational ports like Castellón. The main maritime migration route we operate in is the central Mediterranean, which starts from Misrata, Libya, and sometimes also crosses the Gulf of Gabes from the Tunisian ports of Sfax or Zarzis. It’s considered one of the deadliest migration routes in the world. Migrants and refugees using this route generally come from sub-Saharan African and Middle Eastern countries, seeking safety, economic opportunities, and international protection in Europe. However, this journey is fraught with risks, including violence, overcrowding on precarious vessels, and the possibility of shipwrecks at sea. Many individuals, especially women and minors, face exploitation and abuse during the journey. In addition to the Aita Mari project for humanitarian assistance and human rights advocacy at sea, Humanitarian Maritime Rescue (SMH) actively works on political advocacy, education for social transformation, and raising awareness in educational communities, both formal and informal, through alliances with other organizations and social movements. Since 2023, HMR has expanded its activities to include development cooperation projects in Ecuador, addressing various humanitarian needs and promoting sustainable development and resilience in vulnerable communities. 

On the bridge, there is the necessary material and navigation instrumentation for the type of navigation it performs, such as GPS, AIS, electronic and paper charts, RADAR, radio station, satellite phone, etc. Also, to facilitate maneuvers, there is a bow thruster. Navigation watches are organized in 4-hour shifts and are carried out by the captain and two officers, sometimes assisted by two bridge sailors, all of whom are part of the professional crew. This professional crew is complemented by a chief engineer, an engineer sailor, and a cook sailor. When the ship is on a humanitarian mission, two health professionals (a doctor and a nurse), three rescuers, and a journalist also embark. In total, fourteen people. All of us who make up the SMH team define ourselves above all as defenders of Human Rights, and that’s why we are there where people’s rights are violated. 

Once aboard the Aita Mari, rescued individuals are no longer seen as migrants or refugees; they’re considered full-fledged individuals, our guests. We represent the main causes of migration with the flags we fly on the Aita Mari: 

  • Economic factors: Seeking better job opportunities and more favorable economic conditions. 
  • Conflicts and violence: Fleeing from armed conflicts, political persecution, or violence in their place of origin. 
  • Political instability: Political instability and lack of security in the country of origin may lead people to seek refuge elsewhere. 
  • Persecution and discrimination: Persecution based on ethnic, religious, gender, or sexual orientation reasons may force people to leave their homes in search of safety. 
  • Natural disasters, ecological crimes, and climate change: Events such as natural disasters, droughts, floods, and other effects of climate change can displace people from their homes. 

On this deck, when we have rescued individuals on board, it’s where they rest with the blankets and clean, dry clothes we provide. Approximately 70 to 80 people come in.
To shield them from the elements, everything is fully enclosed, with wooden gates preventing water from splashing onto this area of the deck. 

Engine room
The engine room is a vital and technical space housing a Guascor FT-480TA2 propulsion engine of 500 HP, and two Cummins 6CT8.3 and 6BT5.9 auxiliary engines that generate the necessary electricity for navigation. It’s a well-organized and safe working area, albeit compact due to limited space on the ship. Additionally, there are air compressors and other equipment related to the operation of the vessel. The efficiency and proper functioning of the engine room are crucial for the success of humanitarian work and the safety of the crew at sea. 

Aft cabins
The aft cabins were built during the 2018 renovation, occupying the space where the fish refrigerator and live wells were originally located. In the two double cabins, the chief engineer and engineer sailor, along with the bridge sailors, live together. They share a full bathroom and a small office. The transformation of the ship was carried out with the participation of professionals and numerous volunteers in a community work mode called “auzolan” and lasted approximately 3 months. In addition to the aft renovation, the kitchen was expanded, deck showers and toilets were added, and an infirmary was included. The entire fishing gear was also dismantled, and cradles for the rigid-hull inflatable boats were added, among other elements. 

Showers and Bathrooms
Something as everyday as showers and toilets are fundamental elements that make life on board easier and dignify the rescued individuals. It’s important to consider that many of them have lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in illegal detention centers and have not been able to shower, let alone with hot water, for a long time. Providing them with access to the internet is also crucial, as it allows them to contact their families and let them know they are alive. All these resources are available to them as guests of the Aita Mari, respecting schedules and basic rules to facilitate coexistence. 

The crane is used for lowering the rigid-hull inflatable boats used in rescues. The maneuvers require three sailors who, using ropes, prevent the boat from turning. It’s a delicate maneuver that requires crew training. The anchoring maneuver also involves using the crane, which, like a davit, lifts the anchor to the side of the ship, leaving it at deck level to subsequently lower or hoist it with the windlass. 

Rescue deck
We usually conduct rescues with both rigid-hull inflatable boats. The Aita Mari stays at a safe distance from the boat to be rescued. We approach with the inflatable boats and, after assessing the situation on board and ensuring safety by distributing life jackets, we inform the authorities and wait for instructions. If we don’t receive instructions, which is often the case, we proceed to embark the individuals on board the Aita Mari. It’s important that during this initial contact, they understand our intentions and the instructions to follow, which is why we typically do it with colleagues of African origin. Their participation is also crucial throughout our guests’ stay on board, as they facilitate cultural mediation in the most critical moments. 

Prow cabin
The prow cabin is preserved almost exactly as it was in its original construction as a fishing vessel. We only added a bathroom for the volunteer crew in 2018, who spend the two months of the mission here. In this space, there are 8 bunks, and we also store the “AitaKits,” which are bags containing dry clothes, changes of clothes, footwear, and hygiene supplies that we provide to our guests. Typically, at the start of the mission, we set sail with 350 “AitaKits” provided by our colleagues from Hotz Oñati. 

The hold is also preserved in its original state, and during the 2018 renovation, we made access easier with a staircase and a hatch on the main deck. In this hold, we store the necessary food for the entire voyage, as well as blankets, rescue equipment, and other utensils needed during navigation. Inside the hold, we have several refrigerators and freezers to ensure proper food preservation. Typically, we receive part of the food from the Gipuzkoa food bank, and energy bars are donated by Natra Oñati, SA. The blankets are received bundled from the Koopera organization, which greatly facilitates their storage. To ensure that we can provide blankets to everyone, we set sail at the beginning of the mission with 300 blankets in the hold. In these freezers, we usually keep prepared legumes, vegetables, meat, and fish, which make up our guests’ diet, separate from other supplies. 

Once individuals are safe, an initial medical assessment is conducted to identify those who require special attention. After a few hours or days on board, as our guests gain more confidence, they often reveal injuries (scars, burns, fractures…) resulting from the mistreatment they endured during their journey, especially during their stay in Libya. All women in their migration journey have experienced sexual assaults or rape on one or multiple occasions. In this space, our female health professionals strive to create a safe environment where injured women can feel secure. At SMH, we aim to enhance the participation of women in the crew, with the dual purpose of balancing the strong male dominance in the sector and providing friendly spaces for women victims of gender based violence.

Kitchen and Dining area
The dining area and kitchen are the spaces where the crew gathers and spends most of their time together (also, during rough seas, many hours are spent in the bunks). In this dining area, when we have guests on board, food is prepared using electric rice cookers that allow us to make large quantities of rice to feed up to the 150 people we can accommodate on the Aita Mari. The crew’s diet is varied and usually includes a special menu for vegetarians. The food we prepare for our guests is mostly based on rice or pasta with vegetables, legumes, meat, or fish, prepared in accordance with Muslim customs. To minimize the environmental impact of the Aita Mari, eco-friendly hygiene and cleaning products are used on board, and fresh produce purchases are attempted to be sourced from producers near the supply port.