Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Christmas with a spear-gun

Being 7,000 km away from home at Christmas can be pretty tough especially if you haven’t had a chance to see your family in 7 months – but getting to use a spear gun to hunt wild Indian Ocean tuna can help a bit.

So as a bit of context, for Christmas break we decided to take a real vacation and head to Moçambique for some sun, sand, and socializing. So on December 22, Trina, Chad (all the way from Western Province Zambia), Erin and I departed Mchinji after picking Chad up at the border and were on our way to Moçambique (for more details on our other times in Moçambique check out Erin’s blog at So I won’t continue with the other details but rest assured that we arrived in Moçambique a day later and enjoyed a fabulous Christmas day and a remainder of a holiday and got a chance to hunt some fish.

Chad and I first discovered this spear fishing opportunity when encountering our soon to be friend Ponga carrying a giant tuna through town in a basket. This fish was huge and once I saw it I was drawn in to find out more information. Ponga, who sells fish on the island, informed us that he purchased them from fishermen on the beach who had speared it earlier that day! SPEARED. They SPEARED this giant tuna. Now being truly hooked I continue the conversation with him about where the fish came from, how they caught it, etc and finally get the low down (well I thought I did) about how the fishing works on the island.

So Chad and I glance at each other and without a word to acknowledge what we are thinking I start to question on the details of these fishermen, where they go, when they leave, how they catch the fish, and most importantly if we can go with them. Since Ponga does business with them everyday he says it is no problem and that we should show up at the beach at 2 am the next morning with something to eat while on the boat and the tools to fish with.

What better way to spend some quality time together than getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning, heading to the beach, jumping in a boat and shooting a giant tuna!

The remainder of the day consisted of trying to track down the required inputs to fish with an ‘arma’ (spear), masque (mask and snorkel), and barbatana (flippers). This was an adventure in itself as we went from vendor, to local fisherman, to South African dive shop guy, to hotel, and back to local vendor and fisherman. It was about 9 pm when we final sorted out all the equipment that we would need: a mask, snorkel, spear gun, and flippers to share between the two of us – after all we didn’t want to fish out the ocean on the first go and we could only eat so much tuna in one day. So off to bed but not before preparing our meal for the next day and assuming that spear fishing is a lot of energy we cook up 2 packages of spaghetti, 6 buns with Nutella, and 6 litres of water.

The alarm clock always seems to go off earlier than it should and it was especially true the morning of the big day as it chimes off at 2 am. But with tons of anticipation, I am out of bed and throwing on clothes and a hat and grabbing our gear. Chad and I meet in the kitchen and we pack out things and run out of the hotel heading toward the beach. About half way there I look over our stuff and realize that we have forgotten our mask! So I head back to the hotel running while Chad is off to the beach to meet Ponga. Half an hour later I meet up with Chad and he is sleeping on our stuff and not a soul is around it seems that even 2:30 am was a bit of an over estimate. Since I’m the only Portuguese speaker I start walking up and down the beach in search of our friend Ponga while Chad guards / sleeps on our stuff. It doesn’t take long until I find someone who knows Ponga and is more than willing to take me to his house. I was a bit hesitant at first considering it was only a bit after 3 but didn’t want to miss the boat so we woke him up and he said no problem and walked with us to the beach where we met up with Antonio the captain of the boat.

Pic of Antonio

It seems that the weather was a bit questionable this morning so they wanted to wait to see how it developed before heading out. But, once we got the ‘alls clear’ from Antonio 15 spear fishermen appear all of a sudden as if they jumped right out of the sea. Once they arrive it is business time with getting gear in order, measuring out rope and measuring out the new kids. Before we jump in the boat and push off Antonio wants to know what are motivation is and I explain that we want to learn and try it out and that we will act like any other fisherman in his
boat. This is acceptable and the last thing we do before we jump in is introductions to the other fishermen on the boat. So I introduce Chad and I and as they stumble over pronouncing our first names I figure I will try something easier and switch to surnames “Teixeira” for me of course and “Silva” for my Norwegian comrade. Once I utter our new names we are welcomed enthusiastically, especially the new ‘silva’ as there already is one Silva on the boat whom becomes our new friend and guide.

The Original Silva---->

On the ride out we start to notice that we are the odd man out in more that one way. Firstly, we have no idea what we are doing which becomes apparent when everyone starts to prepare their gear. The spear that we thought was so impressive the first night pales in comparison to our fellow comrades and is about 20-30 cm shorter and with far shorter rope. And we brought a cooler of food with us while everyone else brought a small plastic bag. Regardless of this we try our best to fit in by asking a bunch of questions and paying attention to the ritual of preparing the gear. Chad Silva starts to sharpen and polish our spear, to the satisfaction of the crew, and we start to get questions both to and from our new friends. Before we know it they have taken apart our entire spear and are realigning it and brining it into top form.

The boat ride out to the fishing spot is about an hour down the coast where apparently there are

plenty of big fish – which of course we boast that we will kill a bunch of. As the boat arrives into position people start stripping off clothes and into underwear or wet suits that were former long under and start jumping into the water with only marker buoys indicating their position. The boat continues to drive along the coast as the fishermen jump out and begin diving to spear fish.

The boat skipper thinks that we should wait until the end of the loop where it is a bit shallower. Chad is the first of us to give it a try as he jumps into the water and begins paddling around. The boat leaves him there and circles back to the first fishermen (who have been in the water for at least 30 minutes by this point) and begins to pull some fishermen back into the boat along with their haul of fish. This is where it gets pretty amazing. The fish are huge, strange, and colourful and include stingrays, moray eels, parrot fish, lion fish, rock cod, butterfly fish, puffers, and a bunch of fish I don’t recognize.

Needless to say as the boat pulls back up to Chad’s position I’m pretty excited to see if he has had any luck but truthfully am not too surprised when he comes out empty handed. This of course draws the attention of the crew that start the light hearted questioning of “where are all the fish you promised?” and “how big was the one that got away?” – it seems that fishermen everywhere have a similar sense of humour.

"So where's all the fish?"

Anyways I’m determined to put this fun to an end as Chad and I switch positions and it is my turn to dive down and shoot at some fish. Silva (the original) I think is feeling a bit sorry for us so jumps in with me to provide a little tutorage. We paddle around for a bit he shows me some tricks to load the spear gun quickly and how to swim with it so that it does not go off and can shoot farther. We soon spot a fish and he instructs me to watch and pay attention to his technique. He then quickly ducks under the water effortlessly swims down to 15 m to the bottom and spears a fish and heads back up. Yup that’s when I really realize it – it is like 15 m to the bottom! Hey I can sink as well as the next guy but it is the getting back up that is concerning and also as I find out the equalizing. Not being a scuba diver before this trip equalizing I found challenging. We continue to paddle around and then spot a sting ray that is trying to hide in the sand. Silva gives me the nod to give it a try so I take a giant gulp of air and start to head down. 2 m – 5 m – 7 m – 10 m – 13m and the small sting ray from the surface now appears much bigger so I line up the shot just when I think I’m about out of air and my ears are killing me but spear too falls short. It seems I needed to dive a meter or so deeper yet. Although disappointed at the miss all I can think of now is getting to the surface to get air and make it in what feels like the nick of time. Silva gives the nod of no problem I’ll take care of it for you and I watch as once again he effortlessly swims down, takes his time to line up the shot, spears the ray, and then takes his time to get to the surface. Wow this guy is really in great shape. Not discouraged and not wanted to be outdone I continue to dive down and take some shots but soon become exhausted, fishless, and thoroughly impressed with our comrades.

As my time draws to an end, even though fishless, I am glad to see the boat return to get a break and give Chad another chance. As he is paddling around again I rest up and take the chance to fish with a line and catch a few very small fish – basically bait for the real fishermen. We continue trying to dive down and actually by the end of the day are very close to actually catching some and Chad claims to have hit one but his spear broke but by the end of the day we are skunked!

Boat Load of Fish

As the boat heads back we pull out our spaghetti and share it with the crew and it goes over fantastically. I can barely keep my eyes open and drift off to sleep for a portion of the ride back and as we pull near the island Silva gives us two of the fish that he caught that day as a gift. Once again I am reminded (but not surprised) by the generosity and kindness of the people that I have encountered during my stay here especially when considering that this is there livelihood. If the weather cooperates they head out everyday dive from about 6 am to 1 pm and catch as many fish as they can to try and sell them back on the island. These fishermen are one of the only sources of larger fish for the entire island and if they are successful then there is fish to eat if they are not then no fish. It is pretty incredible and was a great experience into their livelihoods and lives.

We get back to Erin and Trina and proclaim that we caught nine fish (all very small and on a fishing line nor a spear – but details, details) and had a great time! (and plan to do it again but won’t bring that up just yet)

Chad was the first one to point this out but integration and EWB’s approach to this really helped us to make this amazing experience happen. Being able to sit back and ask questions, to watch and learn, and to generally just have fun with it really paid off. Even though it was not the location where we have been investing time and energy into figuring out the local realities – the experience and process has really helped.

In the end of the day we get to go home with a little bit of fish, a little sun, a great memory and some new found respect for a way of life.