All photos by the author

Air Bangis is a small fishing village located in the north of West Sumatra, Indonesia. My plan, while visiting the area, was to interview a few locals about their views on blast fishing, an illegal practice which uses an explosive (often dynamite) to catch fish. When my friend Redha and I first arrived in the village he set about to find people willing to be interviewed while I packed my camera gear. Within a few minutes he came back bursting with excitement. “I met a guy who will take us on a 4-day boat trip; they’re 100% sure we can find bomb fishers out there,” he told me.

With no time to think things over, I parked my car, hoped for the best, and boarded the little wooden boat.

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Six hours had gone by and we were still heading for the horizon, at this point I was under the illusion that we were heading for a bigger boat - fitted with toilets, showers, and beds. Instead, what I later discovered was that this picture was, in fact, displaying a bedroom for 3-4, kitchen and living area, and "wardrobe" (ie hanging your clothes from the beams).

2

The sun started to die down and so did the constant hammering of our boat engine. After a loud cry by the captain and a few slaps to wake the last sleeping person up, the crew got into position and started handing down a buoy, from the front of the boat, until it was thrown out the back, followed by a nylon gillnet. Later, I discovered that this wooden deck would become my bed, fitted with two speakers above my head. I was given the luxurious top deck suite.

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By now the net stretched out for 1 km at a depth of around 30-40m. In order to respect Redha’s religious practices, we all had to wait to eat till the sun had completely vanished behind the horizon. During Ramadan, according to the Quran, Muslims should eat and drink before sunrise and fast for an entire day.

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On a boat with five guys whose English matched my lack of Indonesian, I spent a huge amount of time thinking. So far from land where the cell towers no longer broadcasted their rule, one’s mind was at peace to think for itself. This, for me, is where I make some of my greatest discoveries about myself. For locals, the cigarette seems to be a must. No matter what time of day it is or what activity one is doing, a roll of tobacco is a heartfelt companion for most.

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Fishing was like a ritual for these men: wake up before the sun rises, throw the net, eat some food, pull the net out, and change location. The big metal pole was the rudder, which was usually steered from the top deck with an extension or by placing your toe into the end bit. Day two was on the rise and I was hoping to catch some blast fishers red handed.

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This was the morning routine. The big blue bucket at the front of the boat was filled with fresh water. However, this was non-drinking water and only to be used to shower or clean the boat with. Number twos were done just to the left of me, straight off the boat. Underneath the second big blue container, they stored huge blocks of ice to freeze the fish with.

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To pull the net up from the depths, one would stand in front and pull those fish up who didn’t quite make it into the boat. Usually, it takes three men to pull the net up, and one or two to sort the fish out on deck. At the same time, they’re in charge of rolling the net up again.

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Once the fish is on deck they get sorted by size and type. I was told the colourful (expensive fish) goes to the left and the rest goes to the right. Shrimps and similar small fish were eaten straight from the net. Bigger things such as squid and reef sharks were kept for breakfast or dinner.

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Day two had come to an end and we still hadn’t seen anyone throwing any bombs into the water. Redha reckoned the word got out, about the blond “bule” who boarded a local fishing boat. After the net gets thrown into the water the boat gets a quick clean. Once the fish has been pulled in and everything stowed away the boat gets a soapy clean, from top to bottom.

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The fish get stowed away in these blue boxes. With every catch they add ice on top; at 28-32 degrees Celsius outside you’d think that ice would last for only a few hours but, to my surprise, the fish stayed frozen till we returned to the harbor.

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The end of day three marked an unsuccessful trip to find blast fishers as on the fourth day we’d be spending 6-8 hours making our way back to mainland Indonesia. However, the important lesson I learned on this trip was about making unexpected moments in life count. Because more often than not those are the experiences with the richest outcomes.

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