This is the story of a fish called José. For more than six decades he has spent most of his time in the water. He swims almost daily about 10 kilometres a day, is used to jumping from ships over 40 metres high and is capable of homeric feats at sea even in his 80s. Zé Peixe, as he is known in Aracaju, is revered by sailors from all over the world for his humility, bravery and deep knowledge of the things of the sea.
And, like every legend, he has his own particularities. Since he started working at the port of Aracaju, Zé Peixe has never had a good shower. He also hardly drinks fresh water.
What makes Zé Peixe a rare species is the way he works: he swims to fetch the ship, while his colleagues use a support boat. And when he takes the ship out of the harbour, instead of returning by boat he jumps into the sea. He does it like this: he rolls up his shirt, puts it in a plastic bag with his documents and change and ties it to his shorts, dives in and returns home with elegant, rhythmic strokes, without moving his legs so as not to attract the sharks.
Zé Peixe gained international fame, spread by sailors from abroad who docked there. The gringos call me Joe Fish," he says. Once, a Russian captain of a cargo ship even asked them to stop him when he was about to throw himself into the sea, thinking he was committing suicide.
Joe is a small fish. He is only 1.60 metres tall and 53 kilos. Even though he is small, he has already achieved many great things. The greatest feat was when he rescued the Mercury ship, which was burning at high sea, coming from the Petrobrás platforms and with employees on board. Zé hitched a ride on a tugboat, lightly reached the ship and guided the vessel to a point where everyone could jump off and swim to dry land. Because of his exemplary physical condition, he managed to save countless lives, says Brabo, the head of the boatmen, who has been living with Peixinho for 26 years.
Zé has never left the house where he was born, one of the oldest in Aracaju. Not even when he got married, over 40 years ago (he has been a widower for 20 years and had no children). He set up a house for his wife, but never moved from there. He was always taking care of someone in the family, sometimes his mother, sometimes a sick brother. I'm going to die here, he says. But only when the captain up there wants me to.
There are also those who come to ask for some change. Zé usually distributes his salary to the beggars. Old fishermen who can no longer work, unemployed and invalids know his kindness.
Even after retiring more than 20 years ago, Zé Peixe still works for pleasure. He wakes up early in the dark. He has no fixed time to work. He depends on the flow of ships in the port. And the tides. He has got his body used to eating very little, because a full stomach doesn't go well with the sea. It makes you feel sick. In the morning, one loaf of bread with black coffee is enough. And then just fruit. When he spends the whole day at the port, he fasts. The doctor has already confirmed: Zé has the heart of a boy. He never smoked or drank. His real vice is the sea.
If he is not on foot, he rides his bicycle. Always barefoot. He only wears shoes on Sundays, to go to mass, or on special occasions. There was a time when, to keep a low profile, he used to wear a shoe. One day I discovered that the shoe had no sole, confesses his friend Zé Galera. He is the only one authorized to walk around the maritime terminal wearing shorts above the waist and feet on the ground. Because he is a rarity, a citizen totally out of the norm, he became an exception to the rules, concludes Galera, who learned to swim with him at the age of six and is now his partner in the pilotage.
He is my hero," says Congressman Fernando Gabeira. When he was in exile in Germany, he saw a report on Zé Peixe. The story of the brave swimmer caught his attention. When he returned to Brazil, he got to know this "sergipano" up close. He is an extraordinary figure. I tried to make a film about his life, but he didn't want to, he says.