Deep Sea Fishing, Tanzania
I don’t know anything about deep sea fishing. Or at least I didn’t until yesterday. When my friend Kenji invited me to join in on a fishing trip off the coast near Dar es Salaam, it sounded like fun. I’ve had a good month or two of adventures and this sounded like a nice opportunity for more. I am aware that people pay tons of money to do this sort of thing and when I had a chance to do it for free, I jumped at the chance.
Kenji is a friend of mine who also works for Harvard. His background is a mixture of Japan, New Caledonia, Hawaii, San Diego and Washington DC. I can’t remember how it all fits together but suffice to say that the ocean and the climate here make him feel right at home.
Our jobs don’t interact much but our social connections through our employer have led to us becoming good friends. He’s a big surfer and, unlike me, has taken advantage of the ocean here. When he arrived in Dar with his board I assumed it might end up being more for decoration since it’s not apparent that there is any wave action higher than the waist of a very short person. But, in fact, Kenji and a couple of other guys have sniffed out many a surfable wave. As in many places it’s seasonal but if I were to sign on to stay here longer term, I might be tempted to track down a board (not easy since there are no surf shops here).
Also coming on the trip was Olivier. Like me, Olivier has never been deep sea fishing before. Not to say he doesn’t get out much, Olivier is an active Quebecois who does everything from surfing to ice climbing. He’s coming to the end of his one year in Tanzania and this would be one of his last hurrahs. Like us, he works in development and his plan is to take a couple of months off in the Great White North over the holidays and then seek out employment in Indonesia, home of some of the planet’s best waves.
Our skipper would be J.J. He’s apparently one of the most respected fishermen in this part of Tanzania. He’s a white Tanzanian that owns a few boats all located here in Dar. In addition to being a commercial fisherman, he also does expensive deep sea fishing trips for hire. I’m not sure which makes him the most money but my guess is the latter. He’s an unshaven, unkempt guy with closely cropped hair and at least two teeth missing. His unassuming nature is not atypical for fishermen nor is the fact that he’s very set in his ways. He calls the shots when you’re on his boat. Period.
He’s also not a very touchy feely guy and conversation isn’t one of his strong points. He doesn’t initiate discussion much and won’t really follow along if you do unless it has something to do with him. My impression could very well be a bit jaded given that he was focused on this fishing day but maybe not. J.J. surfs with Kenji from time to time and he’s apparently not overly conversant then either.
When Kenji asked if I could come he was hesitant, asking who I was and why I should join in. He’s justifiably careful about who gets on his boat, especially if they’re not paying him a ton of money. Kenji told him I was leaving the country soon and it would be a fun last experience in Tanzania (it may in fact be true but who knows at this point). He told Kenji to go ahead and extend the invite. In the end, I think we made a good audience all day long as he demonstrated his art and he seemed content to show us his world.
The reason the trip was free for us was that we were simply joining in on one of J.J.’s workdays. I would not have been opposed to paying for the experience but maybe not at the rate he normally charges. In any case, he was going out to do his thing and we were just tagging along. This gave him no responsibility to make us happy, entertain us, make sure we were comfortable, etc. We just provided occasional conversation and reeled in fish from time to time. And we brought food and beer. J.J. likes his Tusker.
We were a bit late getting started. We were supposed to be there by 5:45am but J.J. was late. His power went out during the night; he and his wife had no fans or AC and were not able to get much sleep. I didn’t get much sleep either but it was due to mosquitoes getting trapped on the inside of the mosquito net.
We met at the Yacht Club on the peninsula in Dar. We loaded in the coolers, expensive fishing poles and other miscellaneous stuff into the dingy and headed out to our home for the day. The boat had plenty of room for all of us and it appeared as though we “tourists” were going to be spending most of our time protected from the sun by the covered part of the boat.
The boat had two levels, each with its own steering console. It was the upper console where J.J.’s wife Maddie would drive all day, most of the time alone. Maddie is an interesting character. She’s originally from Milan, Italy, but she’s been in Tanzania for quite some time. She speaks fluent Swahili though she and J.J. communicate in English. Olivier described her as someone who was probably hot once upon a time. She’s actually still very pretty but she has sort of a hardness to her. Her hardness is not just appearance. Maddie is tough as nails. She drives a boat like a seasoned veteran (which she is) and knows fishing inside and out. She also seemed very focused on fishing so I’ll reserve judgment about her overall manner outside the context of the fishing day.
Some people exude toughness even when you don’t know much about them. Maddie is such a case though I do have a bit of evidence. A couple of years ago while out fishing, she had a fishing line tangle around her thumb. Having spent all my prior fishing days catching relatively miniscule freshwater fish, I would learn the power of these deep sea creatures. On this day she became an unfortunate victim as the large fish at the other end of her line bolted in the opposite direction. Her thumb was removed from her hand in addition to tendons reaching up to her elbow. I have a hard time fathoming the pain she must have felt that day as they tried their best to stop the flow of blood and begin working their way the long distance back to shore.
Fishermen are often very superstitious. They get it inside their head that there are things that negatively affect your luck, most of which it’s difficult to prove one way or another. J.J. has it in his mind that fish are sensitive to certain smells – some of it may very well be true. In this case he admitted to not having a first aid kit because the smell repels the fish. It’s true that they would not have been able to prevent the loss of her thumb but they may have been able to make the whole thing a bit less agonizing.
So one would think that the experience would have been instrumental in once and for all putting a first aid kit aboard. Alas, not long after recounting the story to us, J.J. received a nasty finger cut while removing a hook from our first fish. On his boat, the medical kit is the same as the tool kit. Out came the electricians’ tape and a rubber band.
The last member of the crew was Baz. I’m not sure how to spell his name but this was how it seemed to be pronounced. If he ever reads this, my sincere apologies. Chances are, however, he won’t get around to it. Baz works long hours. He’s a Tanzanian with very little English and no formal education – the profile of many of his compatriots. He grew up fishing and was smart enough to go beyond the traditional fishing techniques. Several years ago he hooked up with J.J. who took on the skilled crewman and he has been his right hand man ever since.
He seems to be a real likable guy though we never spoke much. Part of it was the Swahili and part of it was simply the fact that, like J.J., he never stopped working all day long. He basically spent the whole day in the hot sun manning and baiting the poles, assisting us rookies, keeping the deck clean of fish excretions and whatever else needed to be done. He and J.J. seem to work together seamlessly. There was rarely need to speak as the two work in harmony side by side, each with their own tasks, sometimes overlapping when necessary. Maddie steered the boat from her seat above and her role too was mostly without need for conversation. They’d done this hundreds of times and for us it was like an art.
We began the day by heading out past the end of the Msasani Peninsula towards the open water. You can really feel the difference in the swell once you pass the tip of the peninsula. We then proceeded past Bongoyo Island and continued on another kilometer or two. Fairly quickly we had a tug on one of the poles and Olivier got the first call to reel it in. It was a big fish in my book but relatively small compared to the normal catch out here. As he pulled it in we could see that it was a striped bonito. I know less about fish than I do fishing so I can't tell you anything about it - if it's good, if they're plentiful, etc.
We then had a long gap of time before we had any more action. We could see fish out on the water occasionally but they weren't taking our bait. Flocks of birds were tracking schools of fish and they were helpful in identifying their location. Maddie, from her perch above us, would sometimes head in their direction or go elsewhere based upon whatever else she saw (or sensed).
Finally another hard tug on the pole allowed me to spring into action. It was hard pulling for someone who's used to river and lake fish. At one point it felt as though I'd lost him but I later found out that it's common for them to swim in the direction of the pull for a period of time. As he got closer to the boat I think he sensed his doom and the battle took up again in force. The expensive rod and reel do make a difference and it ended up not being that difficult to pull him aboard. Baz and J.J. helped to fetch him from the water. It was a 35-pound mahi mahi, officially the largest fish I've ever caught.
Things picked up after this. Kenji caught a baracuda. Olivier reeled in a kingfish. We kept seeing the sailfish with their black, ribbed fins sticking up out of the water. We were anxious to pull one in. I didn't realize that they are as sought after as they are. When fishermen return from the day's fishing, they put up flags for certain select fish to reveal their good fortune. A red flag is for sailfish, yellow is shark, etc. It's sort of informational and sort of bragging.
When someone has a fish on the line, we learned that the other lines need to be brought in. This keeps things from getting tangled. It seemed unfortunate to me to pull in all the lines just in case you could snag another one while heading through a school of fish but J.J. was clear that once you have them on the line, it's money in the bank. The priority is to make sure the damn thing gets in the boat.
The day was long and often hot. Again, the outing wasn't for our benefit. It was another day at the office for J.J. and his crew.
At one point J.J. received a hard tug on one of the lines. We were alerted by his aggressiveness with the pole. Soon we figured out why. All of the sudden out in the distance a large sailfish jumped completely into the air.
This battle would end up taking several minutes. The fish was strong and fought hard. Maddie had to periodically manoever the boat to react to its movement. As the sailfish was pulled next to the boat, Baz reached over the side and snagged it with a large hook. Into the boat came seven feet and almost 60 lbs. of fish. I'd never seen a fish this big except in photos.
We ended up catching a few more and eventually it began to get dark. J.J. ended up pulling in a second sailfish, not quite as big as the first, and we began to head back to the Yacht Club. We were all pretty tired, most of us lacking sleep, and having spent a day in the elements. I'd fought of seasickness at different times early in the day but nothing that serious. It may have also contributed to my fatigue.
As we cruised in to our mooring spot, it was almost completely dark. It was nice having been on the water for the day. It reminded me of sailing a couple of times with my brother. It's a good feeling and ever time I do it I think that I must aspire to some sort of boat-related hobby. The fact that it never sticks probably means that I never will. I'll just tap into other peoples' water hobbies periodically to get my fix.
We then unloaded the boat of supplies and fish onto the dingy and made our way to shore. The fish were carried up to the scales for the public weighing. It was impressive to see the crowd at the club gather round to see the big sailfish that was hoisted up first.
We sat and watched, drinking water and collecting our bearings. Being out on big swell for twelve hours necessitates an adjustment period for those of us who aren't used to it. I actually had the equivalent of bedspins when I got to bed that night.
It wasn't an easy day (and I'd wished to have kept the mahi mahi) but was pretty cool spending the day with the legendary J.J. Another cool Tanzanian experience.