It’s 15 minutes to midnight and I’m about to board the Manis, a tuna fishing boat from Bunaken island preparing to embark on the day’s trip. A short boat ride from Manado airport in North Sulawesi, the island’s white-sand beach shimmers in the silvery light of the waxing moon. Vian, a 32-year-old Bunaken native, raises a glass of Segaran Sari, the deceptively strong local spirit distilled from palm sap.
“To keep warm for the overnight trip,” he explains as he takes his draught in one swig. Vian (pronounced “Fian” by locals) comes from a fishing family and has been learning the ways of life at sea for three decades, hearing tales from his grandfathers ever since he was a young boy. Just 40 years ago, Vian’s elders were able to head out in their outrigger canoes and find their daily catch just a short paddle away from Bunaken. Today, the island’s fishermen often have to travel for up to 20 hours in search of a decent haul.
Vian then passes the glass to 22-year-old Marco, who refills it and repeats the ritual. The 12 crew members of the Manis are gathered in a circle on the beach, faces lit occasionally by the cherry-red glow of their hand-rolled cigarettes. Tuna fishing is their life, a daily routine – the only days these men don’t venture out to sea are during heavy storms and on Sundays, when they attend church.
“The tide’s up! Let’s go,” calls 34-year-old Ate, who has a head full of sun-bleached dreadlocks and arms knotted with muscles built up from the exertions of years of working on boats.
Boarding the Manis, we each stake out a spot on the weathered wooden deck to try and catch some sleep. The boat is just over 10 metres long; a simple V-hull with a small cabin housing the steering wheel and engine room offering the only real shelter from the elements. A thick bundle of the long bamboo poles that serve as the crew’s fishing rods is stacked on a rack aligned along the ship’s keel.
As we leave Bunaken in our wake, a shimmering cathedral of stars stretches overhead, constellations scattered like diamonds. It’s easy to imagine the great-grandparents of these men witnessing this same view more than 100 years ago.
Taking the bait
The first light of dawn is glowing when we arrive at Pulau Talisei – situated five hours from Bunaken. The island, surrounded by sapphire waters is a breeding ground for the tiny baitfish prized by the tuna fishermen. Known locally as usau, these baitfish are barely the length of a little finger.
“We’ll need plenty of usau today, perhaps 10,000,” says 43-year-old Sonny, with an easy laugh. He’s attempting to dry out his rain-soaked sleeping bag, a reminder of the chilly downpour we all had to endure at 3am. Meanwhile, nine members of the crew are already busy preparing the purse seine net ready to start fishing for the usau.
We rent a small boat equipped with a single outboard motor from the islanders at Pulau Talisei for the usau netting. It takes nearly two hours before we have enough fish, a strenuous start to a busy day for the nine men in charge of the netting boat. The baitfish are kept alive in a large saltwater tank within the hull of the Manis, filled till almost overflowing with seawater by Vian and the remaining crew. Now, with enough bait for a day’s fishing, it’s time to embark on the open sea.
Into The Blue
“To the FADs,” says Anis, a wiry 41-year-old whose skin is etched with elaborate tattoos. He’s taking his turn at the helm for the open sea voyage, setting the Manis on a northwesterly course, heading out into the endless blue of the Celebes Sea.
FADs (fish aggregating devices) are floating manmade structures used to concentrate otherwise scattered populations of fish. Typically, the devices consist of sunken palm branches or other vegetation to provide habitats for small fish and crabs. These smaller creatures in turn attract larger species, all the way up to apex predators such as tuna and sharks. The trip to the FAD takes more than five hours. Upon arrival, we find its bamboo structure adorned with a tiny hut-shelter for those fishermen who decide to stay overnight.
At the stern of the boat, Vian attempts to cover every exposed inch of skin with a conical straw hat, long-sleeved shirt and long pants, in a bid to protect himself from the relentless midday sun. Ate has begun using a small hand net to fling baitfish into the sea at the stern of the boat. This attracts the attention of a school of skipjack tuna; within minutes, they’ve exploded to the surface to feast on the free meal.
With Ate and a fisherman named Tommy manning the chumming nets, and Anis at the wheel, the rest of the crew take their seats on the wooden bench at the stern, fishing poles at the ready. With unspoken coordination, they swing their bamboo poles out over the churning water behind the boat. The fishing poles stretch over five metres, equipped with an equal length of heavy monofilament fishing line tipped
with a steel hook, and adorned with bits of yarn to approximate the appearance of the usau. For more than two hours, the fishing is non-stop, the men swinging their hooks time and again into the melee. Inevitably, one of the tuna mistakes the lure for an actual usau and is hooked.
The lucky man then swings the fish, pendulum-like, towards the boat, catching the wildly thrashing tuna like a piscine football. Next, he uses one hand to deftly turn the hook out of the fish’s jaw, before dropping the tuna onto the deck of the boat to be collected. Fresh from the ocean, the tuna shine with electric hues – shades of iridescent blue, polished gold and acid green. Built for speed, their bullet-shaped bodies are propelled by the curve of a sickle-shaped tail. By the time the usau are all gone, the crew have landed more than 400kg of fish. With a practiced efficiency borne of daily repetition, Ate rapidly sorts the tuna by size into large foam coolers for sale at the fish market back in Manado. His back glistens with sweat.
As we’re motoring back to port, Vian holds up a fresh-caught tuna, asking me, “Have you tried gohu?” “Gohu is like Sulawesi sashimi; we use our own spicy chilli and lime juice,” he continues, slicing the fresh tuna into thin strips. Within minutes, he’s prepared this Manadonese favourite – the only substantial food we’ve eaten all day.
The raw fish is delicious, the briny flavour of the raw tuna enhanced by the legendary fiery peppers of Sulawesi. Sonny, Inyo and the other fishermen smile quietly, enjoying the fading sunset after a busy day, the simple meal of gohu made all the better by the refreshing cool of the sea breeze.
Back On Land
It’s nearly dark when we pass beneath the Soekarno bridge and drop anchor at the Manado fish market. The fresh fish are then ferried ashore to be weighed and sold to the people of Manado. “When I was young, I heard the stories of my grandparents, and how they could catch their fish just near Bunaken. Now it is more difficult. We must travel so far every day to find enough fish.” says Vian.
Today, many islanders have sold their tuna boats and converted their homes into guesthouses for tourists, but a small band of diehard fishermen like Vian are keeping the traditions of their seafaring ancestors alive. “I just want to continue the family tradition – to be a fisherman.”
The last light of the day is fading – from shades of magenta to purple and then deepest indigo – behind the iconic Manado Tua volcano as we arrive back at Bunaken. Vian and the crew of the Manis have been on the boat today for nearly 20 hours. They’ll have less than five hours at home with their families before heading out to sea again. But as we say our goodbyes, their satisfied smiles after a hard day’s work amid the beauty of the Indonesian archipelago say it all – they wouldn’t have it any other way.
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This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine