Dispatch from Yap: Nightfishing and the Rule of Threes (2)Posted: March 24, 2012
Continued from Part 1.
My mind alternated between stoic acceptance of my (presumably inevitable) fate and disbelief. Sog was a nice enough guy, he wouldn’t avenge my disrespect by engineering my death from beyond the grave, would he? The rule of three had been satisfied, right? Well-loved dogs have to count. How did all of these deaths happen? I concentrated on the road for the rest of the drive to change the subject.
Things grew calm as I drove into Ron’s driveway, Tomil’s red clay dirt blanketing the ground. His younger brother, Sean, greeted me and offered a betel nut. I accepted and we had a chew in Ron’s outdoor living room.
“Are you going out with us?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’re going over there because of the weather.” He pointed to the water protected from the wind by Tomil’s green palm trees and red hills. He laughed. (Young Yapese guys have a habit of laughing when they don’t know what to say.)
“Do you guys see a lot of sharks?” I asked.
“Oh,” I said as I quickly chewed the red wad of pulp in my mouth.
“Hmm…” As I mulled over several Matt v. Shark scenarios, (In most of them I survived, but my survival gave rise to other quandries. For example, would Victoria still love me if I were missing a leg?) Ron pulled up in the family’s old flatbed Vanette.
A gust of wind stroked Tomil as Ron greeted me and said “This weather…” He showed me around his family’s land a bit before we took a seat in a koyeng filled with chainsaws, disembodied flashlight parts, and carved up rubber tubing. As he sharpened my bamboo spear’s dual spikes, he began to explain night fishing protocol.
1) Stay pretty close to at least one other person (for obvious reasons). 2) If you want to get someone’s attention (for example, if you see a shark), wave your flashlight at them. 3) Many things are poisonous (sea urchins, stone fish, little jelly creatures called gee-yohn in Yapese), but very few can kill you. Lionfish can supposedly kill you, so don’t get overexcited and chase a fish into a lionfish.
After the lesson was complete, I had another chew and took some target practice on the coconut husks at the base of a tree. I paced a bit to dispel the excitement/fear/betel nut buzz that washed over me, and we hopped into the Vanette to be on our way.
The water was very low and murky, and despite the windbreak provided by Tomil, it was pretty windy.
“These conditions…” Ron said, shaking his head.
“My family asked me not to go tonight because of the weather and everything, but we’re out of fish.” We clanged the doors of the old car shut and grabbed our gear.
Our launching point was a small pier made of rocks and dead coral, and we each found an accommodating rock to sit on while we prepared.
“Very murky,” Ron said as he shined his flashlight into the water. I thought about the website explaining that most night-fishing shark attacks occur in poor visibility. He then showed me the local technique to prevent your mask from fogging; you take a couple of hibiscus leaves, crush them up, and rub the slime inside. This is much less disgusting than the usual spit defogger that we are all born with. I waved my spear a bit as if it was somehow productive practice, suited up, and jumped in.
“Ooo! It’s cold tonight!” I said. Ron laughed, concealing his annoyance, I suspect. Then, just like that, I was night fishing. The first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. I guess it’s always pretty quiet underwater, but my adrenaline heightened awareness and the pitch blackness whereever I wasn’t pointing my flashlight accentuated the silence. Everything also seemed eerily still at first. The damselfish that usually gather near coral in the daytime were missing, and all I saw were seagrass and coral. As I made some headway into the water, though, the stillness gave way to surreal motion. A blue needlefish, apparently attracted by my flashlight, snuck up beside me. Sea cucumbers undulated to some silent song. Judging by the rhythm, it was probably a Brian Eno tune. A cowry clung to some coral. All of the creatures that are only arguably alive during the day were out making moves.
I swam around a bit before I spotted my first prey, a red and blue soldier fish. So far as I could tell, it was at least six inches long. I shined my flashlight at it and stretched my sling taut, swimming toward it as it apprehensively swam sideways.
-Thhpp- I got it right in the middle of its gut and began to congratulate myself as I pulled it from the water. It tried to wiggle free from the end of my inverted spear. It was three and a half inches long, max. Flashbacks from every white man spearfishing movie scene flipped through my mind, and I felt simultaneously self-conscious, ridiculous, and alive. I tossed the fish into the styrofoam cooler tied to my waist and went on my way.
“Matt, I want to show you something,” Ron said. I swam over to where he stood in the seagrass.
“You see this?” He pointed to a dull brownish grey rabbit fish with its body tilted to about 60 degrees.
“This is what they do when they’re spotted.” He speared one and tossed it into my cooler and told me to get another one that was “hiding” by my feet.
-Thhpp- “Nice shot!” he said. “Alright, let’s go.” Shooting rabbit fish seemed too easy. I can’t help but feel bad for any creature whose defense mechanism makes it easier to shoot. I nabbed one or two more and Ron flashed the light at me. We had reached Biy island, and it was time to turn around
“I’m going to go back along the channel, if you want to follow me.”
“Sounds good to me.” If we went along the channel, we’d be going underwater 20 feet or so to get the ones hiding under coral. I’d been down 30-40 feet in the daytime, but the night added a new element of risk.
Swimming toward the channel, I snagged another rabbitfish and a goat fish, both of which were smaller than I had hoped, and tossed them into the cooler. When we got to the channel an angry-looking lionfish greeted me. I swam the other way. I also managed to spear a respectably-sized soldierfish, but he had the temerity to float under a chunk of coral after he died. I scratched my hands and knees pretty badly as I wrestled with coral in order to retrieve it. Battered and bloodied, I gave up.
At this point, I started getting cold and began to head back to the pier. Not wanting to be seen as a cowardly new guy, I dithered around until someone else went back. While dithering, I spotted a big fish sleeping under a rock. A fish under a rock. A poisonous stonefish? I swam back and forth in deliberation. It does look an awful lot like a stone, but it would doubtless be impressive if I brought it back. I approached and cocked my spear…
-Thhpp- He woke up to a steel rod through his back, and he was not pleased about it. He swam frantically and managed to get loose, brushing and scratching my leg in the struggle. Hopefully it was not a stone fish.
Someone waved a flashlight at me from the pier and I accepted the invitation. As I swam in, I approached a forest of coral between me and my destination. Being low tide, there was about 1 foot of swimmable water above that formidable-looking sealife. I sucked my stomach in and kicked gently, still managing to scratch my hands and knees badly, eventually making it to the pier.
As I surfaced, John asked “How is it?” (An all purpose Yapese phrase meaning “How’s it going” or “How was it?”)
“Good,” I said, “That’s pretty fun. I got some at least. I saw this pissed-off looking lionfish…” he laughed, “and I nabbed some rabbit fish.” I pulled my cooler in to show him. It had apparently tipped over at some point. Staring back at me were three measly, mocking fish, their eyes perfectly reflecting the light aimed at their dying bodies.