Between tradition and change

A new Marine Protected Area might be the key to protecting age-old traditions in the remote Indonesian region of Alor.

Words and photographs by Max Holba

It’s finally hot and dry here in the Alor Archipelago in the Pantar Strait between the Flores and Savu seas. The rainy season was unusually long and wet this year. Even without the permanent media coverage regarding the global climate crisis and increased weather extremes, the locals know that something is changing, they experience it first-hand. For many elders, the past year was the wettest and least predictable during their lifetime. Heavy storms and rough waters make it increasingly hard to do what they have always done – to count on the ocean as their provider.

Today, luckily, it is flat and calm, the perfect conditions to go out. Bapak (an Indonesian expression for gentlemen of seniority) Oktovianus is loading his small wooden canoe with his Bubu, a handwoven fish trap commonly used in the Alor Archipelago in Indonesia. He finished making it yesterday and is noticeably pleased. Making one requires knowledge, craftsmanship and time.

To make a Bubu, locals head to the island’s mountains and hillsides covered in thick rainforest to gather various natural resources, such as woods and vines. Here, the rattan plant, a climbing palm that grows all over Indonesia, can be found in abundance. It is a lightweight, flexible and durable material, making it an excellent option to use outside – or underwater in the salty ocean. Once the material is gathered, the intricate weaving process can start. I have asked different Alorese about the production time of a Bubu and I always get a similar, somewhat puzzling response: anywhere between two days to two weeks. Bapak Oktovianus took five days for this particular basket, but he had already stocked up on Tali Rotan, rope made from the rattan plant. The most common baskets have funnelled openings on either side and they can vary in size and shape. They usually come with a wooden base structure, on which rocks can be placed to weigh it down, keeping it in place on the ocean floor. Now that the Bubu is loaded and secured, we can get started.

“The right to put a Bubu in a certain place of the reef is passed down from generation to generation,” explains Bapak Oktovianus, as we slowly approach his spot, on his boat. The reefs below us offer a cornucopia of coral in stunning shapes. The ocean temperature in the Pantar Strait varies highly as strong currents and upwellings can push cold water towards the surface. Sometimes the temperature can drop from 29°C to 18°C in a matter of hours. Additionally, the cold deep- water circulation brings nutrients from the depths, boosting the diversity of the reef.

As we expect the water to be on the cooler side today, I am wearing a wetsuit. The only piece dressing Bapak Oktovianus is a simple loincloth and his handmade wooden goggles. Carved from wood, shards of glass glued in place with the help of tree resin, they look just like the goggles of an Olympian swimmer. And looking at his impressive physique, one could think he is just that. His torso is large, and his arms are muscular and lean. Due to life-long training, his lung capacity is significantly above average. He has been shaped by life at sea.

Hanging over the side of his dugout boat, the bamboo outriggers assist with stability. He peers down into the abyss, until he finds his spot on the reef. I take some photographs before he nimbly glides into the water together with his Bubu. He takes a deep breath and freedives without the use of fins to the bottom to carefully place the trap onto the reef. He puts it in between coral formations and volcanic boulders, some of which are used to weigh the basket down. With its intricate weaving the Bubu forms a perfect harmony with the beauty of the reef ’s architecture. It will stay down there for “maybe one day, maybe one week. We will check when we need fish!” Bapak Oktovianus laughs. Until then, different species of reef fish will find their way into the trap, but not out. No bait is used for this traditional fishing method. The locals rely on the fishes’ natural desire to seek shelter. The funnelled opening seems to appear like the perfect place to hide, but when inside, the small hole at the opening’s centre is hard to relocate. The fishing method itself is minimally invasive to the ecosystem as the baskets will be used multiple times and are repeatedly placed in the same spot, causing little to no damage to the surrounding corals.

Spending time with Bapak Oktovianus feels akin to time travel. Here, the world seems to still be how it once was. The locals live in harmony with land and sea, only taking what they need. They have done so for generations, treating the ocean with respect. The reefs are still teeming with life and appear to be untouched and pristine. Topside, tiny villages decorate the rocky, volcanic coastline. Only the occasional satellite dish reminds me that change and modernisation have arrived with a rapidly growing tourism sector.

A few days later I am contacted by Bapak Oktovianus’ grandson who owns a smartphone. He tells me that his grandfather already made use of the good conditions and retrieved his Bubu yesterday. The ocean was dictating the local’s rhythm and I missed out on seeing what was inside the basket. He tells me over the phone that he also freedives and uses the Bubu to fish. He has done so from a young age but ultimately, he dreams of diving “carrying the big bottle on his back”. He sees it as a new experience and opportunity.

Somebody that has already taken advantage of the new opportunity in the region is Samsudin who I meet a few days later. Just like Bapak Oktovianus and his grandson, he freedives and fishes with a Bubu. He was taught by his dad, just like Bapak Oktovianus was taught by his. These days, however, he has a different calling: he is one of the first dive and snorkel guides in the archipelago, and he knows the sites and the Pantar Strait’s merciless currents better than anyone else. “I want my kids to become divers as well, to share the beauty of my home with tourists,” he says, noting that the steady income he receives via tourism pays for his kids’ education.

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This feature appears in ISSUE 31: NET LOSSES of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 31
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