As a naive 19 yo, after sporadically selling an image to a local pastor for too much money than it was worth, I was able to grab my things, book a flight to Indonesia and start my documentary of bomb fishing. An easy job I thought, seen it a thousand times in nat geo, go there ask some questions, show some solutions and away you go.
Landing in Indonesia I had about 400USD in my account. Before long that number decreased as visas and taxis cost way more than expected.
Having connected with Shawn Heinrichs, a renowned photographer, he put me in touch with an owner of an island who invited me to talk to him about the matter at hand.
By the time I had arrived on the island, I was down to just a couple of hundred dollars in my account. Chris, the owner of the island filled me in on the matter, and told me about the problems bomb fishing causes to the reef and the holiday industry, the economic impact it has on the local population and so on, four days passed and he sent me on my way.
A short boat ride took me to a local island where I was told a ferry would pick me up. Upon my arrival on this island, the captain of the dingy, as to say farewell reminded me that the boat will leave for the mainland the next day, he waved and I was sitting on an island somewhere in the ocean.
Sure enough, I had no food or water on me, in my mind, I was heading to the mainland the same day, after a few hours of roasting under the hot sun, I ventured into the water, only to find out that the water was warmer than the outside temperature and now I was covered in salt feeling even more thirsty.
Time to go to survivor mode I thought to myself. I was into my climbing so getting a coconut from a tree I thought was a dilly.
An exhausting hour of walking around, trying to find a suitable palm tree went by, ever tried taking down a coconut 6m up with one hand grabbing the tree, the other one faffing in the tree? On the tv it looked way easier that's for sure.
With no success, I eventually found a coconut washed ashore.
Now desperate for water I started smashing this coconut against the rock. With eager eyes, I watched as the juice came flowing from this nut. I took the biggest gulp imaginable. The taste… like sour goat cheese, I had successfully managed to find a rotten coconut. Having tasted the honey though, I was determined to get a prime one.
The next morning hungry and still thirsty, I ventured over to the other side of the island, where I found a surf camp, offering free water. Like a stray cat, I hogged the water fountain and got rehydrated. Back on the mainland, I knew my money would not get me very far if I wanted to finish my project, I’d have to get onto couch surfer.
A local man accepted my request and gave me an address. On my way there a friendly man offered me a lift, I accepted, shortly after his hand creeping up my thighs this was a little too friendly. Fortunately, things got so heated, that the tire blew and we had to make a pitstop, I thanked the guy and walked from there.
Redah, the guy who offered me a space on his floor had fewer gay vibes which I appreciated. We became close friends and before long he offered me a ride to North Sumatra, from there myself and Redah, a local English teacher were running around a port to get a lift out to see, we were on the hunt for bomb fishers.
The fishermen who eventually took us onto their little nutshell of a boat promised around 8 hours boat ride away we’d for sure see bomb fishers. We were sold and hopped on board. We would sail through the night said the captain.
At the time I was veggie and hated fish, that stuff would almost make me throw up. So prior to boarding the boat I figured I’d be eating rice with vegies if not lasagna. Wrong.
For dinner, we had red snapper and shrimp that crawled out of your throat unless you bit its head before swallowing. - everything was straight out of the net, a dream for anyone who likes fish.
In the morning the princess which I have come to call myself on this occasion felt like he needed to go for a number two. After sleeping on the wooden deck of the boat, using a bag of rice for a cushion. I’m not sure what I was expecting to hear when I asked where should I go for a morning dup. Ass over the side of the boat it took some getting used to this new golden seat of relief.
Being stared at by 6 local boys, after realising that the white boy had an even whiter ass they laughed before getting on with daily business.
A day had passed and no bomb fishers were in sight. The men on board told me it was as if they saw the Bulle (white man) and vanished.
Along the way we met so-called “ex” bomb fishers, I quickly learned no one wanted me poking around asking or taking pictures of the situation.
Bomb fishing started after the Dutch left, leaving behind TNT in abundance, the locals had nothing better to do so they started throwing it into the water. The fish in the circumference of about 10m get their gills blown out, the fish is completely floppy and the bones are more like splinters but it’s easy to grab the fish and therefore saves a lot of time.
The hole in the ground caused by the explosive is around 3m wide but since the coral is now in pieces, the waves knock into the healthy reef thus creating craters of around 8m.
I’ve witnessed 20km of reef near Padang, completely desolate, a desert of green gunk left behind caused entirely by bomb fishing. By day three, the fishermen aboard out nutshell told me there might be a little island not far away with the local mafia boss, he’d be up to talk to me about my project and help me.
I was naive so of course, we set our course and aimed to meet this almighty dude. We go there and instead of the traditional mafia hideout in a dimly lit bunker-like setting, I was hoping across wooden planks, like a favela version of the Maldives.
The man sitting in the middle surrounded by a few of his chums is the big dawg I’m told.
He asks me what I want and without hesitation, I tell him the problem and my own thought-out solution, which is to help bob fishers to get a new job in the seaweed farming industry.
The man listened patiently, until the end of my courageous speech, looking back at it I feel like Lisa from the Simpsons addressing the town about sustainability. At the end of my speech, he lifts his phone, snaps a picture of my face, shows me the image and goes.
I'm paraphrasing here, "I have a picture and will send it to all of the fishermen in the area, they will know who you are. So I now give you two choices, either you grab your things and head back to Europe or if you choose to stay here you will be on my dinner plate by tomorrow."
I look around the room, some of the men on the boat I came from were already scuttling back to the boat, my friend Redah tried to reason with me being very polite but he boiled it down to let’s get the fuck out of here right now. And so we did… our boat doing about 5knots tucking along, we felt helpless and it was though any second someone was gonna come hunting us down. About 6-8 hours of nervous boating later we got back to a harbour in north Sumatra.
By the time I got back into my car and was now already 3 hours out of the village I came from, I parked my car, I wasn’t going to give everything up just because this random dude has threatened me. At the top of a pass, I watched the stars, had some snacks and headed for bed. It was around 2 am when I heard someone knocking on my window.
It was probably just a local farmer looking for an easy handout for parking. I open the window and soon notice that this guy wasn’t alone, 7 guys surrounded my car, They were now heated shouting at me to get out of the car.
In my boxershorts I jumped into the front seat, started the engine and the second I did that the boys threw a couple of tree trunks in front of the wheels, I revved the engine and finally managed to get the car moving, they started hammering into the car with sticks, throwing stones at the window.
Shitting my pants at this point, I was flying down this pass road at full speed. Tailing me were 7 lights, the boys had picked up their motorbikes, in every corner throwing rocks at my car or hammering it with anything they could.
It took me 1.5h to shake them off. Totally exhausted I pulled into a local service station just outside Padang, I collapsed in the back of my car and woke up only by the busy trafficking at the fueling pump. Once the TNT had run out the locals used fertiliser to continue their cunning ways of fishing, filling Nitroxide into glass bottles. The bottles come in all shapes and sizes, some float some sink to the bottom and others are designed to float underwater.
A tactical bomb can yield 30kg worth of fish, with one blow. Compared to the normal fishing tactics using nets and rods, the fishermen will come back with around 15-25kg of fish after a whole day of fishing. So it is easy to understand why bomb fishing has taken a stark rise in the greedy minds of the local fishermen.
When asking the local fishermen in the Padang area, whether they would recommend destroying the reef outside of one's house with the unsustainable method of bomb fishing vs the conventional way. They told me that if time could be turned back they would not start bomb fishing. Easier said than done of course.
I took this message to North Sumatra, to share it with the local fishermen. I was laughed at, one individual who was overly pleased with himself, covered in gold and silver chains. Said where you’re from people like to have money, no? I replied in the affirmative. He continued to say so do we, and if we have the chance to make more money we will pursue this regardless. It is not a matter of feeding the family but a matter of being able to buy a nicer car, a nicer house. He continued to tell me to maybe focus on the problems in the west and asked me to leave as soon as possible as I have no business down in Indonesia.
Looking at blown up limbs, from the individuals who make the bombs, police officials firing at local fishermen, taking them to custody before they get released a few days later to continue the work. Listening to stories of how the extra Nitroxide makes its way to Indonesia from Singapore in the bow of the local army boats. Talking to the head of tourism in the area, time and time again the messages were the same, go back to where you’re from and find a topic over in the west and leave us alone.
I noticed my naive way of thinking would need a shovel so when I got back to Padang I did just that.