The fishermen gather in light rain that gets heavier, taking shelter under the overhang of a rusted shed. We wait in the dark on the beach of Bunaken island for the rest of the crew to arrive.
It’s one in the morning and Bartolo, stocky and cheery (even at this early hour), sits cross-legged in the sand sorting his hooks from a yellow pouch. Another fisherman, wearing a traditional woven bamboo fishing hat, stands under a light bulb smoking an unfiltered clove cigarette.
We board the 30-foot Elang Laut, lift anchor, and lightly rev out of the shallows. Except for the men steering and on lookout, the crew nestle into blue plastic bags or under tarps on the deck.
The sea is rough, and I focus on the moonlit silhouette of mountains in the distant. But soon my efforts to ward off seasickness succumb to sleepiness. I wedge my body between the port side of the boat and a snoring fisherman, and yank a section of his plastic tarp.
A few times I awake to rain hitting various parts of my body and reposition under the tarp. My pants are soaked from the water rolling down the deck. I think of Melati in a warm bed back at the home-stay (she has remained in the village to interview for an upcoming story on bamboo music). I’m tired and sleep comes back easily.
Just before dawn we reach a net framed with bamboo and floating between two islands. We will collect bait fish here. The crew crawl out, change into work clothes, and prepare to work. One crewmember shimmies out on a bamboo pole to retrieve the far end of the net. The bait fish are scooped in cut-off plastic jugs and passed between four crew members until they are poured into our center hold.
We leave as other boats arrive nearby to also collect their bait from other holding nets. The lookout, sitting in a chair above the deck, scans the surrounding waters for the telltale splashing created by a school of tuna. Not more than twenty minutes pass before the deck erupts in shouting. A school has been spotted.
The engine revs to full speed. The crew argues about the best direction for intersecting the school. “Kiri, kiri, kiri” (left), the most veteran and salty fishermen shouts, his kretek cigarette still dangling from his lips.
As we close in on the splashing school, the fishermen select their bamboo rod. Cigarettes are tossed into the sea. Seven gather at a bench at the stern, bamboo rods in hand with lines in the water. A pump sends sprays of water into the air and another crewmember starts slinging baitfish from the middle of the boat over the fishermen and the stern.
One bamboo rod bends, then another, and another. The fishermen throw their weight back to lift their rods, tugging the lines towards the boat. Once yanked out of the water, the tuna swing into the fishermen’s chests. They catch the tuna with one hand while still grasping their rods with the other. Tucking the tuna under their arms, they unhook the lures, and with quick twists, flick the tuna behind them into the boat with the swiftness of an NFL quarterback making a lateral pass to his running back. The fishermen’s lines are back in the water before the tuna hits the deck.
On the deck of the boat, the tuna’s tails rapidly beat against the wood. The sound rises like a drill into wood and becomes louder as more and more tuna are caught. Their powerful tails, which propelled them effortlessly through the water seconds before, now futilely flick back and forth until they exhaust themselves.
In three minutes, the fishermen land fifty tuna. Within five minutes, a hundred. Tuna pile on the bloody deck and slip into the rear hold. A bamboo rod cracks. The fisherman grabs the top end of the broken rod until he reaches the line and then pulls in the line by hand until another tuna is in the boat. He races to collect another rod.
When the school of tuna finally goes below the surface, the fishing and excitement ceases. Plastic cola bottles filled with water are passed around and cigarettes are lit again. Now they begin the process of taking the fish out of the rear hold, clubbing any tuna still slapping their tails, washing the catch, and tying them off in pairs by the tail. The tuna are then taken up to the forward hold and hung by the ties across bamboo poles.
We find schools two more times. It’s a bumper crop day—almost 500 fish! The bait hold is empty and we head to Manado to sell the catch. At the port, the fish are handed over the side of the boat two at a time to the fish seller employees standing waist deep in the water.
They drag these beautiful fish with their big black eyes and shiny, muscular bodies through the port’s murky water. Nearby, several naked children use a broken Styrofoam box from the fish market as a raft. The fish are stuck vertically in blue plastic crates, weighed, and tossed in the bed of a waiting pick up truck, embedded between layers of ice.
The count is in—1567 kilograms of tuna. This is a big catch and the crew gathers in the wholesale fish market to celebrate over a case of arak (local palm liquor). Seated on fish crates, we pass around a common plastic cup and take big gulps of an arak and cola concoction mixed by the bait-slinger.
For the forty-five minute voyage back to Bunaken island, several villagers that had been shopping in Manado join us. The arak continues to make its rounds among the crew. Fifteen hours after we set out, we arrive back on the beach. The fishermen return home, each bearing a fresh-caught tuna for dinner.