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Freediving N.55 - Oct / Dec 2008

In English.

Published on International Freediver and Spearfishing News, n. 55, Oct / Dec 2008, pg. 30 - 31.

 

An African Experiment

Text and pictures by Riccardo Andreoli

 

 

 

This year I wanted to try an experiment trip. I wanted to see if, in another island and at this time, it was possible to re-create those incredibly conditions found in the past in Sal, Cape Verde.

I remember by now as in a dream, first dives at dawn, in a windy day that in Sal anything else does not seems to exists, literally walls of wahoos. In the grey water, wary shapes, conic heads all pointed toward the diver, colours stolen from the Ocean itself. Wahoos from the surface till where they disappeared, fifteen, twenty meters down. You had to, unsafely but efficiently, load the gun on-board because, the very moment you entered the water, wahoos glided everywhere around you. Attracted by the novelty (THEN it was a novelty) of a boat in theirs waters.

This now has disappeared. Several boats of local spearfishermen, learned the techniques by us first bluewater divers, with gear perhaps not shiny but deadly accurate, are at those four-five selected places EVERY day there's on the calendar. It's not amazing that wahoos are not there almost anymore.

Currently, and I tried this year a couple of times as a control condition inside this very scientific experiment, you can very relaxedly load your gun in the water. There're not wahoos waiting curiously for you just under the boat. Roughly, sadly, there're not wahoos any longer. You can wait and wait, and, if you're good, and the underwater gods on that day are smiling on you, you can return at the new wood pier after six-seven solid hours spearfishing with a couple of fish. As a topping, smaller and by far than those of previous years.

140 nautical miles south-west of Sal there's Fogo. A magnificent, almost-green island, with a huge active volcano sitting in the middle, nearly 3000 m high. Almost no tourism whatsoever to speak about. The only “fishing pressure” on the stocks is by local fishermen that, in little boats and hand-lines, take what they need for the day.

The mountain so big that almost perfectly shelters by the fierce Trade Winds all the west and south side. So much that in the flat ocean most of the fishermen does not need an outboard engine and they trolley with live bait... rowing!

Do not laugh. In season are not few the sailfish taken with so a seemingly primitive technique. And you have to see the tunas! No bluewater spearfishing at all. Almost no spearfishing. All in all, a paradise.

BUT, as it always seems the case, if Fogo is a paradise, the road for it is a thorny one.

First of all you've to arrive there. And if that it's more or less easy for a human body, even if with two flight for so a short distance, it's not simple, at all, for the two meters long Tuna Gun my faithful companion in all my travels. Too long, by far, for entering the tiny cargo holder of the 15-places aeroplane used to land in Fogo's diminutive airport. So I had to send it as a baggage. It took 10 fuming days of sparkling, blue, flat water shining untouchable before my eyes to reach me.

Then the language barrier. The mother tongue should be Portuguese (language for a start I do not master very well) but in reality what's spoken is almost invariably the crioulo, derived from African dialects. Worst, it changes from island to island so, if by now I understand something of Sal's crioulo, Fogo's one is different.

Luckily a dear friend of mine, Roberto, opened a, this one truly paradisiacal B&B in Fogo in 2007 (www.tortuga-fogo.eu) and by now is well acquainted with the local idiom. More, he has a quad, perfect for roaming the steep, narrow and labyrinthine streets of S. Filipe, the only town in the island.

Searching subsequently for the fisherman taking you out can be daunting. Before all you've to find a young one, willing to change one's established ways for going in the ocean. Not easy. Then you have to find one obviously owning a boat. Not always so simple because it's not uncommon, even with so tiny boats, that the owner and the fisherman using it are two different people. This obviously leads to the problem of the double profit, one for the owner and another for the fisherman. Speaking of costs, the easy belief here, as in countless other countries in the World, is that the occasional tourist is always rich and evidently to be mercilessly milked. The first assumption being somewhat true related to them, at least this has to be more or less taken in stride.

Then there's the engine. You THINK you've overcome the biggest problem having found a fisherman that takes you out, from that hour to that hour, taking whatsoever combination of petrol/money/fish you've agreed to. But there's still the engine problem. The fisherman can show you, in its tiny combination of shed – sleeping room an oil barrel with the engine screwed on, starting at the first pull, roaring to life (well, perhaps mewing to life) so much that his little girl sleeping on the floor wakes up wailing, but it's not to be trusted. Before anything else that engine is so old that it probably was the spare engine of Captain Cook best mate for holidays here. Then, if you look inside, you can recognize spare parts that are not only not-original by far but evidently hand-made to resemble those missing. It's not always the fisherman fault. One told me that, having left some hours the engine at one of his colleague's house, found missing the little steel rod connecting the tiller to the accelerator. It was after discovered inside the radio set of the first one, totally deformed and used as an aerial of some sort.

In the ocean that same engine behaves differently. Very. One daunting day I had to cover a short distance, 2.5 nautical miles. It took us something more than 45 minutes because, tap tap on the shoulder so the fisherman is sure to have undivided attention, the “motòr tèn probléémas” the engine has problems. Obviously of unknown origins, obviously not previously fathomable at home. Working faithfully... for not more than 40 seconds at time. It was a long day...

And if you think that is enough, you're sadly mistaken. You've still to REACH the ocean.

Now, you've to know that there almost all the fishermen do not keep their boats in the harbour. It's not really their fault. The “Porto” is three kilometres from S. Filipe. Not owning them even a simple wheelbarrow, moving there and back those precious engines on their shoulders, and the fish on their heads, every day, is intimidating at the least. The sensible fisherman keeps instead his boat just under his house, on the beach. If it seems for once easy you've to know that S. Filipe is built on top of an absolutely vertical cliff of around 80-100 m. From the main terrace in town, near the court, you can drop a stone on the boats just under your feet. The path, it does not deserve even the name of “road”, starts plain enough, with a cobbled paving. This goes on just for a fifth of it. The cobblestones then start to seem bombarded, thrown here and there leaving gaping pits. No motorized vehicle of any kind can cope with that, not even a sturdy quad. You can anyway walk easily enough. The first real problem you encounter is that from the wall above, in some unfathomable time in the past, a huge boulder collapsed. It's now there, leaving only a scant 40 cm between it and the parapet above the beach, till far below you. The trail after that becomes so steep that it turns into a staircase, so absurdly precipitous that it's more a ladder than anything else.

Finally, here you are. It's that fatidic first day, you're recovering after that descent with more or less all your bulky bluewater belongings draped on you: guns, spears, floats, fins, bulky underwater camera, weight belt, water, and so on and so on. It's now well stowed inside the tiny boat, more or less 4 m, you're already thinking about ocean's power and corks, when it dawns on you. You've still to LAUNCH in the water all this, together with your almost-as-remarkable self. And just in front of you ocean's best swells boom and froth and tumble upon themselves in their best imitations of killing waves.

It'll be a long process. With a lot of almost-go and last second reconsiderations, the breakers hurtling white waters around your feet to budge the boat to and fro, till what it seems a wave exactly as big as many others before, stumbles upon itself and opens  an almost flat path. In a swirl of shouted and incomprehensible crioulo we're all in the boat, the fishermen madly pulling on the oars. A fierce blow against the next and not so forgiving swell, litres and litres of water flying onboard, the fisherman crossing himself thrice, and we're, at last, floating.

Whatever system is used for moving the boat, reluctant propeller or muscles, at the least the Ocean around is wonderful, flat here on the leeward side, rich of surface life. Unknown little fish boil there, flinging around iridescent spray. A little bullet shape, a small tuna in his eagerness to feed, flies out of the sparkling water some meters away. Curiously no birds to speak about. Only a lonely shearwater (Calonectris edwarddsii) raises its slim wings to the sky soaring over the slow blue waves.

On the left, the cliffs raise black and grey, the ribeire, the deep trench ploughed by the torrential rains, deeply cut here and there their severe verticality.

At last we stop, inexorable, unavoidable finger pointed down: “Here”.

It's has been repeatedly explained to the fishermen that I’m not in the least interested in garopes (the local small groupers) or whatever sort of bottom fish. That I want to take “big fish” of the open water, like serras, atùms and espadartes, the native names there for wahoos, tunas and sailfish. And, why not, also belfish, marlins, if they can be found. The fishermen certainly assented. I keep my own doubts but this is for the future to see.

Now it’s my turn. I start preparing my gear, visions of those walls of wahoos, of untouched blue water fading endlessly away lulling my mind.

With the violence of a slap all bursts out when the fisherman taps twice on my shoulder, put both forefingers on the side of his green wool cap and, moving them up and down, repeats again and again, in the effort to communicate with this strange extraterrestrial chap, “langostas, langostas” (crayfish, crayfish)!

A strange vision of a enormous bluewater Tuna Gun inserted in a small cave for worrying a small crayfish flashes in my mind but it’s fortunately dispersed by the reality of the blue under my eyes in the mask hurriedly (and worriedly) put on. Perhaps he misplaced a spot? Or thought that my dive abilities were far more fabulous than the reality and put me on rocks thirty-forty meters under me? This is not important now. Now it’s dive time.

First slow dives, around, surgeon fish (Acanthurus monroviae) that often patrols here the upper levels of the bancos, the rocky outcrops jutting up from the bottom. I dive inside the school, they swim around me, twenty centimetres from the mask, looking curiously inside it, their yellow patch on the tail loudly advertising “I’m dangerous, I’m dangerous, do not eat me”. A most welcome hug after so many months away from the Ocean.

A mirroring spark deep under my fins, then another one some meters away. I dive. I know what they are, enforcados, armoured jacks (Jack trevally - Caranx hippos). Curious, they peek up at this never-seen-before shape, all the school with the same eye. A succulent fish, I well know that in Sal they’re avidly searched. So I take a deep breath and dive down. They’re not exactly a worthy prey, not for my dreams and certainly not for the Tuna Gun that seems to reproach me through unseen eyes. Anyway the fishermen, I reason, will like them. So I search for the big ones, usually deep down, hidden behind layers and layers of their curious offspring. I found a large one, well above the ten kilos mark, and fire. Not a really well placed shot, but the fish is struggling at the end of the rope, not swimming away. The usual harsh but short fight with it, before long it’s in my hands.

While I call the boat I’m looking forward to show the fishermen the fish, to prove that this bizarre diver can really take fish in so a weird way. Instead… consternation. The smiles waver and die. And even if the fish is raised high and exhibited to the other fishermen around, it’s put down on the bottom of the boat in silence.

Later I’ll understand. In Fogo that “avidly searched for” fish is thought ONLY as an oven fish. If it’s too big it will not fit inside. Simple, isn’t it? And if some uncomplicated answers jump really easily to the mind it’s not for Fogo’s midwives at the fish market. That beautiful fish would remain unsold, thrown to the cats the day after.

Only serras, in that long month of the experiment, I learned are really appreciated. Aside langostas that is, which I constantly, doggedly refused to surrender to. And they’re there NOT in walls abundance. Not at all, I discovered day after lonely day of almost empty blue water. Probably a month is too short an experiment for discovering the hidden places of where serras congregate? Surely, but… a MONTH!

As a last odd word, after barely hinting that this African Experiment was not perhaps totally successful. The “underwater” picture on these pages was taken by one of the fishermen, from the surface, dipping the camera into the water from the boat, laughing so much about the weirdness of it that half of the series was taken out of the water or wobbly!

 

 

Riccardo A. Andreoli

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