Americans are petrified of sharks, and I am red-blooded in the sense of sharing that awestruck fear and fascintation with all forms of these predators.
I have progressed in my friendship with Philip to the point that he's very straightforward with me and he even saw me "fit" enough when I wanted to join the crew going night spear fishing. I have had so many internal conflicts with how to approach most of the things I disagree with here, but have slowly come to realize that I have to participate in some of these things to create any dialogue. I do disagree with night spearfishing, it's not only dangerous, but it's bad fisheries management to shoot sleeping parrotfish. It also leads to activities such as spearing sea turtles. Philip has explained to me, after some boys were caught roasting a sea turtle in the bush one night that he has advised the villages to eat only male turtles. It seems like a reasonable compromise except that the law stipulates an enormous fine and jail time for this. I imagine it's sort of like the Inuit hypothetically making their own government in the arctic and deciding to ban whale meat, in the sense that they are both an endemic peoples with a traditional food source. However, spearfishing is not a traditional hunting method and there are plenty of other meat sources here.
Which we were out to pursue on the night Philip came to borrow a dive mask. "Philip, I've told you I think that night spearfishing is ..." " NOGUD!" he interjected with a pearly white grin. "No," I hate when people put words into your mouth, "I think it's a bad fisheries management strategy." Meanwhile, butterflies are swirling in my gut as I scramble to find my dive light and swim shorts by candlelight.
Down by the beach we build an enormous bonfire to keep our bearing of the shoreline from the ink black water and midnight spectral explosion of stars across the sky. In the light of the bonfire we can see the gill net stretched out from the stones on the beach and the flickering flashlights trace a dusky two meter form that turns sharply from the net. "Shark-shark-shark-shark-shark!" I couldn't be sure if the three young men I followed were hoping to capture the shark for food or chase it away from the net before it shredded it to pieces. I was glad that their adrenaline shrilled cries and frantic race over the stones chased it away so it couldn't attempt to shred us to pieces. We returned to the fire and prayed. As an afterthought, the boy with the speargun told us if we see a shark to shine it in the eye and follow the eye as it turns away, turn off dive light and swim away fast. I didn't bring up the shark's ability to sense our every movement in the dark, and I figured we'd be better off relying on the prayer.
The dive lights provide much better illumination in the dark water than on land and I watched my friends chase and capture mullet, lobster, enormous crab, or anything that moved bare handed. I caught a crab, but hadn't worked up the guts to fish out a spiny lobster from a dark hole. The current pushed us along and our lights captured the small organisms alert on the reef and the confetti storm of annelid worms spiraling like streamers in our beams. However, the large waves that crested on our course may as well have crashed down from the darkness of the sky. With very little warning, my limbs were stretched in different directions, a flipper removed and a blizzard of bubbles scattering a white-out of the flashlight beam surrounded my rolling body as I searched for a stone to steady my hand on. I slipped in to a pool where the waves weren't breaking and found Philip, laughing as we both spit out seawater. We separated from the boy with the speargun after seeing him splatter fish tissue and blood while removing the wire of his spear. We continued to shore after about two hours on the reef in the darkness.
At the embers of our bonfire, we threw a few lobsters on the coals to roast. Freshly cooked lobster, no butter, no soup and it was the best thing I think I've ever eaten. The moonrise began as an eery glow like orange embers of the fire. I confess, one of the reasons I wanted to be in the Peace Corps in the Pacific was to see at least one "Blue Planet" event in my lifetime and I think that it worked me over pretty well that night.
I think a lot about the spearfishing and the conservation areas. I've learned that I'm much better at the technical component of these issues and less of an educator in the ways of sustainable resource management. As I was on the Brooklyn cargo ship again, a year anniversary from the last voyage to Port Vila, I decided I want to work on a simple fishing workshop next year. I have three that I really want to offer that address coastal erosion and landslides; environmental education booklets in local language made on the island by the villagers; and the fishing component of trap making and fish smoking. The last is the most technical and I've already started constructing a fish trap with three other boys in my village who will help me out in the workshops. I'll teach how to smoke fish so that they can get fish meat to the local markets if they want to cut-in on the tin-fish products sold everywhere in Vanuatu. It's easier and cheaper to get tinned fish than freshly caught fish! That is not right, yet the fact that I was on a "transport/cargo" ship that is actually a converted fishing boat should explain more about the state of fisheries in Vanuatu.
Have a Merry Christmas and holiday season,