My fishing stories can be counted on one hand. I dimly remember my family trying out fishing once, unsuccessfully. There was the time my youngest brother wanted to fish in the nearby lake but was too disgusted by the worms to bait his own hook, so I did it for him. Ironically, I was the one who caught a fish that day, with an unbaited hook. Then, of course, there was that time I went squid fishing in Thailand.

But, even better than my beginner’s luck in southern Thailand, was my fishing haul in Tiputa.

A pair of fish on the edge of a beach retaining wall. Beyond a Polynesian man cleans his catch while a a seabird flies across aqua blue water to fish for tossed entrails. The sky is filled with grey-white clouds.
Cleaning the catch at the water’s edge

Fishing for triggerfish in Rangiroa

“Um… I think I feel something on the line.” I had wondered how I’d know the difference between the currents lightly tugging at the line, and an actual fish. But there was a sense that this tension was different, more intentional.

“Pull it in,” responded Saudara immediately. I pulled at the line; we were fishing without a rod, so you had to haul the line in by hand. The tension increased. I pulled again, and this time it was unmistakable. The line pulled back. Hard.

“Pull harder!” Saudara exhorted disapprovingly. “It will get away.” By this time the fish was fighting me, and I began to understand his urgency. A sharp jerk – enough to tip me forward. Wow, how big is this fish?

I fought back more seriously, drawing the line in as steadily as I could. It was all by instinct; I wouldn’t consider myself an experienced angler at all. But the fish was very strong, and I quickly got to the point where it was all I could do to hold fast.

Saudara, whose own line stayed slack, got up to help me. “You must haul it up quickly,” he said, “If you are slow the sharks will come and eat the fish on the line.” With his added strength, we pulled the line the rest of the way and to my surprise, at the end of it was a large, thrashing titan triggerfish.

Damn, these triggerfish are real fighters!

Me on a boat holding up a triggerfish caught by hook and line
Hooked a triggerfish!

Catching triggerfish for the first time

Baliste,” said his wife Saudari, staying by both her own line and his. At the time, the name of the fish was on the tip of my tongue, as this is a popular fish among snorkelers and scuba divers, but I didn’t remember ‘triggerfish’. So when she said ‘baliste’, I began to doubt that I knew the fish after all. However, I later read a multilingual fish ID sheet and learned that baliste is just the French term for triggerfish.

“You eat this here?” I asked her. She nodded, and added that they were tasty. In fact, the octopus bait that we were using that day was specifically to hook these big titan triggerfish. Saudara was frugal with it, as it was apparently expensive. When I was slow with pulling the fish in, and it managed to eat the bait and also escape the hook, he looked visibly upset.

Nearby, her husband dropped the triggerfish into the basin. It flapped mightily, but then realised its fate and stopped. It was a fish out of water.

Plastic bin on a fishing boat full of fish and topped by triggerfish
Fishing haul for the day

Why is fishing easy in Rangiroa?

The plastic basin was filled in less than an hour. I was dumbfounded. I had the sense from other people’s fishing stories that it should be harder than this to catch such hefty-sized fish. Yet even an amateur like me could easily catch my own food in Rangiroa.

I wondered whether people in Tiputa already practise the fishing norms that marine scientists prescribe as the optimal way to fish for long-term sustainability. And true enough, in Tiputa people fish for their own needs, and use only hook-and-line. Only on rare occasions would a net be used. As a result, you will never be out of fish.

I shared this proof to my angler friends back home. They were envious. They confided their thoughts on why we can’t have this situation too. I’ve seen anglers here take even the small ones. That’s why we have run out of fish. Of course it’s not as simple as that, but they were referring more to our mindset in Southeast Asia.

But I also learned something else. These rules were only agreed after people here had already experienced overfishing. So the villagers made these rules, and designated no-take zones like the Aquarium. Clearly, it worked. And I hoped that maybe, just maybe, it could still work for our islands too.

Childhood fishing stories from a Pa’o’motu woman

Though it was easy to fish in Tiputa, you still had lulls in between bites. You could tell that fishing was important to both my hosts, because the stories they told me in these lulls were fishing stories.

Saudari was taught fishing by her father. I had assumed this was normal, until she told me that culturally Pa’o’motu women don’t typically go fishing. But, for whatever reason, her father decided to deviate from the status quo. When she was still a little girl, he taught her the most valued Polynesian skills – boating and fishing. “So that I can look after myself,” she recalled. “In case there wasn’t a man around.”

Mobile made of strung seashells and urchin spines in the foreground in front of a coral beach lagoon seascape
Growing up in a fishing culture

This included spear fishing. Always go in twos, her father had taught her. One person to hunt the fish, the other to fend off the sharks that swarm after the kill while the first person takes the catch to the surface. If you go alone, you better be a fast swimmer up to the boat. Saudara’s uncle had a chunk bitten off of him when he had gone alone.

“The fish cries when you shoot them,” she told me.

These many years later, she was still astonished that the cry could be heard underwater. She had heard it as a little girl when her father had taken her spear fishing. She had seen the big sharks herself. And she remembered vividly the first time she heard a fish’s death cry, and the feral response of the sharks. It’s different. The sharks leave you be when you’re just swimming. But when you’re hunting, they will fight you for your kill.

“5 minutes,” said Saudari, when I asked her how long people can stay under while hunting. 

(Lack of) fishing stories from Tahiti

“Tahiti has no fish,” Saudari said. “So boring, to fish there”. She sounded disapproving and faintly perplexed, as though she still could not fathom how a place with no fish would have Polynesians living there. When she was studying in Tahiti, she actually had to pay money to buy fish. It was unheard of, a culture shock for a young Pa’o’motu girl. She called home to tell her grandmother this shocking revelation.

It’s not that the food wasn’t good in Tahiti. “Actually the food is very good, and the cuisine diverse – there’s Chinese food and all sorts,” Saudari went on. But a Pa’o’motu girl will eventually want fish. And she was shocked to realise she could not feed herself as she could on Tautaki – or indeed, anywhere in the Tuamotus. “Seven hours fishing and only one small fish!”

I looked at the bin in the boat, already full to the brim in an hour of lackadaisical fishing. Indeed, I could imagine how surprising it must have been to her. I thought back to what my catamaran host in Tahiti told me. The Tahitians fish with nets, he said, and they take fishes big and small. And indeed, while the reef at the surf’s edge was pretty good in Vaira’o, there were not any big fishes.

And I wondered if once my country was like Rangiroa. It’s certainly not like that now. I told Saudari what we had done to our sea shelf, and that today it was not easy to catch fish like we were doing. I thought I should leave that cautionary tale with her.

Old fishing nets draped as sheer curtains around a beachside patio
It’s easy to take too much with a fishing net

Husband and wife fishing duo

In these fishing trips, Saudara took ownership of the cutting board, hooking pieces of octopus for everyone’s lines. He himself would sometimes man several lines at once. There was friendly competition between husband and wife, over which one caught more or bigger fish.

Saudara was an interesting guy. Or maybe it’s just because I find guys who marry unusual women interesting. Like my dad. What did they have in them, that they would marry women who didn’t meet their culture’s image of what a woman is supposed to be? Generally they’re not alpha males, yet somehow are able to not conform to the pack without being shunned.

Sure enough, Saudara still had the Polynesian man’s challenged pride over his wife possibly being better at fishing than he. In fact, one of the first things Saudari confided in me was her hurt when he wouldn’t let her get the limelight from tourists without trying to draw attention to his own fishing skills.

But at the same time, he also freely admitted to me how good Saudari was, and that she was often better. I think he was secretly pleased to be challenged by his wife.

It’s good for a couple to have shared interests

How a man tells fishing stories

Saudara had a big personality. It was a stark contrast to Saudari’s more insightful manner. He reminds you of the class clown when you were in school. He’s affable, a people person, always out and about, basking in attention. Annoyed as she often was with him, nonetheless his wife still turned to wherever he was, like Clytie following Apollo’s chariot. It was the cutest thing.

Unsurprisingly, Saudara tells fishing stories differently. In the boat, Saudara’s fishing stories were grand tales of landing 20kg fish and catching marlins ‘right there’ (even though we were in the coral lagoon rather than the open sea).

“Beware the tiger sharks.” An incorrigible performer, Saudara ups the ante. Seeing that I was not impressed by massive fish, he tried danger. And to be fair, I was more interested in tiger sharks.

“You have tiger sharks in the lagoon?” Thus far, while snorkelling and diving in the area, I had only seen reef sharks and one glimpse of a hammerhead. He nodded authoritatively, saying that you have to be wary of them when out fishing. They were aggressive and prone to stealing your fish. Once, he said, he fought for a long time on the line, only to drag in a tiger shark stubbornly not letting go of the fish that was actually hooked.

Non-fishing fish stories of Rangiroa

However, Saudara was more interesting when his fish stories were not about fishing. “Have you seen a parrotfish the length of a man?” he asked me, knowing full well I hadn’t. Parrotfish? Those fish about elbow length, if that?

Seeing my disbelief, he affirmed that parrotfish did indeed grow as large as he claimed. “But the big ones are very clever. You don’t see them around. You can only sneak up to them when they’re sleeping.” At night, if you knew where they hid, you could freedive and sneak under the coral overhang or crevice. Once, he had dived down into a crevice large enough to creep in, and saw a massive parrotfish – as long as he was tall! But it was asleep, and did not stir.

After a lull, he offered another story. This time, it was about the time a group of French scientists came to study why dolphins stopped coming into the lagoon. Saudara did not know why they went to so much trouble. There was a lot of boat traffic in the channels now. He thought, surely it was obvious that was why.

Looking across dark blue lagoon waves under an overcast sky with two Polynesian fishing boats on the horizon
Talking about fishing while out going fishing

The long shadow of Moruroa

Returning to shock and awe, he warned me next about ciguatera. “You know Moruroa?” he asked me. “The fish from there,” he said, “will make you sick.”

It took me a while to understand what he was getting at. It seemed that there are ciguatera contaminated fish in the Tuamotus, i.e. fish with marine toxins that bioaccumulate up the food chain. This means that the toxins get more concentrated as contaminated fish get eaten by other fish, which get eaten by bigger fish, and so on. And people who eat the fish then become poisoned.

But it also seemed that locals believe the ciguatera poisoning is somehow related to the effects of France’s atomic bomb testing around Moruroa, which only stopped in the 90s. I wondered how, since ciguatera is caused by marine toxins rather than a radiation sickness. Or maybe the radiation messed up the food web, and ciguatera was one of the results.

Conscious of the fact that we were fishing at that very moment, Saudara reassured me that there was no ciguatera in Rangiroa. “Here the fish is safe,” he said. Just not everywhere in the Tuamotus.

Comparing words in Malay and Polynesian

During a particularly long lull, the Polynesians thought to pursue their curiosity. It hadn’t escaped them that I look very much like them. “What do you call the sun?” Saudara asked, curious to see if Malays have the same word.

The different French Polynesian atolls have different languages, but the common language is Tahitian. This means that pretty much everyone (except possibly Tahitians) was trilingual, knowing Tahitian, French, and their own regional language. The language of the Tuamotus is, of course, Pa’o’motu.

Matahari,” I replied with reciprocal curiosity. Once, when I was in New Zealand, a Maori tour guide had informed me that Maoris and Malays share many old words, such as mata (eye), and mati (death). So I wondered whether the words were the same in Tahitian as well, or perhaps Pa’o’motu. After all, on Easter Island I learned that rangi is ‘sky’, which bears a striking resemblance to our langit.

But no. The two of them did not recognise the word, and I did not recognise theirs. We tried a few other concepts, but could not find matches. The closest was tauto, for ‘sleep’, which is pretty close to our tidur.

Coral beach meeting brigh aqua blue lagoon
Malayo-Polynesian seafaring cousins share the seascape

Glossary of the Tahitian vocabulary I learned

I made notes of these comparisons so that I could examine them at leisure.

horo’agive meminta/hulur kepada saya
tama’ameteenjoy your mealselamat makan
tautometegoodnight (inexact match)selamat tidur (good match)
mitiwater (as in ‘the sea’)lautan
motusmall atollpulau (inexact; ‘pulau’ is not specific to island type)
urubreadfruitbuah sukun
Tahitian spelling might be wrong; I wrote them down phonetically.

Catching enough fish

My petite, slender build was not helpful for fishing for triggerfish, since I weighed a lot less than my companions and my centre of gravity was not as low. Thankfully, we never had to pull against an opportunistic shark, so I was never in danger of being pulled right off the boat. But in general, even I could manage to land my own fish half the time. Especially when it wasn’t a triggerfish – larger fish were easier to land than a titan triggerfish!

There was one particularly memorable triggerfish, which fought so hard that it took all three of us to land it. We expected it to be huge, but it wasn’t. It was merely exceptionally feisty. “Welcome to Polynesia!” declared Saudara with a flourish, as I sank to my seat after the ordeal.

We generally called it a day when the basin was full. Before turning the boat around, Saudara would always bait a different, larger hook which was connected to a winch. He would drop it aft, start the engine, and when the boat sped back to Tiputa, the baited line would trail behind.

I wondered what kind of fish would be caught this way, with a fast-moving bait. I nearly found out, for once there seemed to be a bite. Saudara slowed the boat to a stop, excitedly reeling the line in, but it went slack and the hook came back in sans bait. Sadly, neither he nor his wife could explain to me what they were fishing for, as they knew the fish only in French.

Maybe marlins?

Post-fishing chores

The working jetty in Tiputa is a little further in than the main jetty. It’s not as busy as the village jetty; we usually had it to ourselves. There was only one work area, and you tether your boat to one of the bollards along the concrete jetty. When I was there, a pile of coconut lay on the jetty all week, lying under a sack covering. Saudari confirmed that it was for export, but it wasn’t very lucrative.

An urban girl, I had never watched a fisherman clean his catch before, unless you counted the fish we collected for dissection from a sampling trip during my Masters degree course. So I sat to watch my hosts in their task.

My two hosts unloaded the fish and proceeded to clean them straight away. Saudari laid them all in a row on the edge of the embankment and inspected them. She took one of the triggerfish and tossed it back into the water. After a few moments, it revived, and quickly swam away.

I asked her why she returned that one. She made a motion to her chin. “It’s blue,” she said. Her father had taught her only the ones with the orange mouth are good to eat; the blue-chinned ones are not. 

Row of fish at the pier edge after a fishing trip
Laying out the catch in preparation for cleaning

What it means to fish for food

Though urban, I’m still Asian. I am quite aware that food involves killing. The fish were still breathing; I wondered if and how Saudari was going to kill them.

There was a metal stick among the fishing equipment, and she demonstrated its use then. The fish were killed with quick stabs to its brain. I later discovered that it’s considered to be the most humane way to kill a fish. However, Saudari was not always accurate enough to effect an instant kill, and when she wasn’t, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the food.

As his wife proceeded to scale and gut the smaller fish, Saudara dressed the larger ones. Standing up, I noticed surface feeders in the water swimming close, with small reef sharks arriving soon after. Seabirds began circling overhead, and soon I saw why.

As he cut out the fish guts, he tossed them into the water, and the birds would swoop in, trying to snatch them on the wing . If they missed, reef sharks below would take their chance, a second petrel incoming in case there are remnants floating on the water.

In the blue hour, the mood of my photos suited the scene. There was a deadness to the air. Splashes, as offal entered the water. The churn of sharks, thrashing. The sweep of wings, dropping and climbing, turning in their hunting gyres.

I know that some people would find it macabre. But I am a woman of the sea coasts just like my companions. And in the frenzy of sharks and the circling petrels, in the dying breath of the fish we caught, there was a sense of primal inclusion. That we are not outside, but are within this cycle of Gaia. As are the sharks and the petrels and the fish.

Carbon offsetting information to Rangiroa, French Polynesia

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Rangiroa via Auckland and Fa’a’a produces carbon emissions of approximately 10,713 lbs CO2e. It costs about $54 to offset this.

It’s always fun when you get hosts that tell you lots of stories. What kind of stories do you look for?

18 Responses

  1. Slavka says:

    Very interesting and enlightening reading for someone from Europe. Thanks for sharing the fishing stories. I don’t think I could catch a fish even if there were tons of them around :)

    • Teja says:

      You’d be surprised! It’s not really about how many fish there are (although obviously the fish have to be there to be caught!). I think it’s more about how ‘naive’ the fish are. Places under heavy fishing pressure tend to be harder to fish over time because the ones that survive to breed tend to be those with behaviours that avoid getting fished. But here, it was really easy!

  2. This is my first time on your blog and I really enjoyed your story writing…beautifully presents your experience. I’m not a fisher-person, but I love to eat fish! But I’ve learned a lot about sustainable practices in the last few years. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

    • Teja says:

      Hooray! Then that means I’ve successfully communicated marine ecology in a way that’s interesting and not boring! I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

  3. Alison says:

    Oh Teja you completely reeled me in! I did not expect to be interested much in a post about fishing, but the more I read the more I felt like I was there with you, and wished I really could have been. A wonderful experience, and great story-telling.

  4. Susanna says:

    Wow, such amazing tales from your time fishing – I was hanging on to every word. Growing up in Alaska, many people don’t have access to supermarkets – or supermarket food is very expensive and not so healthy. My family grew up subsistence fishing to fill our freezer with salmon. I remember my first time fishing, and this brought so many memories back. It’s wonderful to read about the balance they have with fishing in Rangiroa and sustainable fishing practices. Fishing and seafood are such a necessary food source for so many people, but some large-scale practices are worrying for the future. I loved reading about the difference between Saudari and Saudara and the way they talked about fishing. Saundari is an inspiration, and it’s so great her father taught her to fish! I wish them all the best, and thank you for sharing your and their captivating story!

    • Teja says:

      Indeed! I think that actually rural people around the world have so much in common with each other, it’s just that they are the least likely to be able to travel to find this out, at least compared to the urban people with more disposable income and more likely to be liberal enough to want to. In fact I pondered this irony in my next article, which you should totally check out!

      Re: large-scale fishing; indeed it’s often unsustainable, among other issues. But that is mainly because industrialised production demands volume (not unlike any other industrialised production), and is exacerbated by the relatively underdeveloped legal & enforcement frameworks on the high seas (which is not limited to fisheries but also applies to industries as wide apart as shipping and cruising).

  5. BELLA says:

    What a fascinating post and a great experience, really well told. Thank you for sharing!

    • Teja says:

      Thank you! They were a really fascinating place and people, and I really believe their stories deserve to be better known.

  6. Keri says:

    I love some good storytelling, so often missing these days. Some curious insights you picked up there, what an amazing experience it must have been

    • Teja says:

      :) Yes, it took me by surprise! I mean, whenever I go somewhere and plan to do it the slow travel way, of course I hope it happens. But French Polynesia surpassed my expectations.

  7. Thanks for sharing these wonderful stories, I’ve really enjoyed reading your post. And it looks beautiful there.

  8. Krista says:

    I love reading fun stories like this! You have a great mixture that you’ve put together which area really interesting to read about.

  9. Mayra says:

    Very interesting fishing adventures. The glossary is quite helpful. Thanks for sharing the post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.