Life in Salt: Diving with the Da-wu Spearfishermen of Orchid Island (蘭嶼, Lanyu). The Island That Time Forgot.

by Owen James Burke

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(Left: Johnny Lee with Mao Yong’s catch — Mao Yong refused to be photographed. Right: A balangay, or a traditional Lanyu canoe. They’re all built to the exact same specifications, which include 14 different kinds of wood, and exact measurements which have not changed over the course of at least 800 years. The only variations are the stories they tell, which are all depicted in red, black and white paint — made naturally from different saps and berries, that is.)

The Da-wu (or Tao) (達悟) spear fishermen of Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼 in Mandarin Chinese) don’t have refrigerators. At the time of my visit, they lived on the only remaining inhabited island in Taiwan without a 7-11 franchise (the first, sadly, was opened in September of 2014). Still, the sea is their refrigerator and their corner store.

The Island That Time Forgot.

My picture of Taiwan changed as soon as I made shore on Orchid Island, or Lanyu in Mandarin Chinese (“Pongso no Tao,” meaning “Island of the People” in Yami or Dao, the indigenous language). I’d spent most of the past 14 months in the dingy, hot, stinking, sprawling concrete abyss southwest of Taipei, the kind of place — it could be argued — that maybe everyone should spend a little time in for one reason or another (appreciation and awareness of how bad some people have it comes to mind). Had I not taken the time to venture out to this jagged volcanic rock protruding from the Pacific, Taiwan would have remained, in my mind, a Matrix-like hell of traffic, pollution, cell phones and candy crush. But then again, the 17-square-mile island of Lanyu is not and never has been part of Taiwan. Not when you see it for yourself, and certainly not when you ask the Da-wu who inhabit the island.

Lanyu is a small island about 50 miles off the coast of southern Taiwan, and 80 miles north of the northernmost island in the Philippines. It’s wedged between the two nations and their respective cultures in both time and space. English won’t get you very far there, and neither will Chinese, really. That’s because the locals migrated from the Batan Archipelago (the northern chain of the Philippines) about 800 — or 1000, depending on whom you talk to — years ago, bringing with them their own culture and customs. Leaving Taiwan and landing on Lanyu, you’d imagine you were in Polynesia or, maybe, the Philippines. The Da-wu speak a Maleo-Polynesian language, but they don’t share the customs of brewing or headhunting, tattooing, or using bows and arrows.

In modern times, there has been some degree of assimilation to neighboring colonizing and imperializing cultures, but the Da-wu (often called the Yami by their Filipino neighbors — and ancestors — to the south) have fought long and hard to maintain their cultural identity and language since the start, when they were first occupied by the Japanese in 1895.

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Mao Ge (pronounced “Mao-Guh”) is a local historian and speargun maker who runs a beautiful little B&B and dive center in Yeyin Village (野銀 in Chinese, Ivarinu in Yami/Da-wu).

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Yeyin was the only village on the island that the Japanese couldn’t conquer. Their warriors were too fierce, Mao Ge tells me. It’s also the only warrior village on Lanyu that remains largely intact.

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Above: an old “in ground” house in the foreground and a new house in the background. This was the way Mao Ge’s grandparents lived and raised their family. The houses were all built in rows, gently sloping down the hillside. To the left and the right of the frame are other, identical dwellings.

Just over one hundred years ago, every home in every village on the island was built as seen above, for many reasons. For one, it offered an aesthetic appeal: each family had their own ocean view without obscuring that of their uphill neighbor. Another advantage to building into the ground was that it kept the house cooler during the summer and protected it from typhoon winds. Running downhill between the houses is a conduit, or an aqueduct, both to contain flooding and provide water.

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Above: the inside of Mao Ge’s family home with his grandfather’s (and possibly great-grandfather’s) shield, helmet and sheath, built of cork- and reed-like wood (for which I could find no translation).

One more strategic reason for this architecture — though certainly not the last — was defense. Because each family had an ocean view, everyone could perform the duty of watchkeeper (anyone who could spot a foreign vessel on the horizon, that is). The houses lock tightly from the inside, so if an intruder did make it to the hill, they would have a difficult time breaking into a home, and a trap door is located in the rear of each house so that women and children could have a safe getaway as the men defended the abode.

Mao Yong, who just happens to be top dog of Hongtou (pronounced “hong-tow,” meaning “red head”) Village, tells me that the sea is the town cooler, a reserve, and the way they hunt, you’d imagine it bottomless. Meanwhile, as our dinner party runs out of food, a pair of fishermen suit up for a night dive on the beach out front in order to replenish the table, just as casually as someone living in New York City might walk down a few sets of stairs and around the corner to a bodega.

I met Mao by accident while seeking out a local historian of the same name who lives on the other side of the island, but this was a most fortunate mistake. I was led to a picnic pavilion overlooking the beach, a definitive man cave of tools, fish tales, lumber and woks (the men do much of the cooking on Orchid Island. The women spend much of their time with the children, who just happen to be some of the most well-behaved kids I’ve ever met).

It was early, and just as I began to bombard Mao with questions about spearfishing, he silenced me and told me to return for dinner that evening. Sure, I thought, I’d bring around a few beers and a few bags of betel nuts, the southeast Asian equivalent of tobacco chew, often spliced with with something nice like ephedrine or another amphetamine-like substance. It turns your mouth red and makes you sweat like a pig — probably not dissimilar to slapping on about 5 nicotine patches. No wonder they are able to go strong on overproof alcohol and obscene amounts of food into the early morning and still wake up for sunrise. They sure got a kick out of watching me try it.

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(Photo: WSJ)

When I showed up later that night, there were a handful of people around the table, from both Lanyu and Taiwan’s main island – and a whole mess of fish. I thought, we need more beer, what I’ve brought won’t do. But as I started to turn around I heard bottles clanking over my shoulder. “Johnny Lee”, whom I’d met earlier with Mao Yong, was coming in with case after case of beer and dozens of bottles of Kaoliang, the local hooch and a noxious plant liquor that’ll take the shine right off your shoes. Between a few sips of that and a betel nut or two and you’ll find yourself spinning in your chair in no time.

Feeling under-equipped, I offered to pay, but immediately wished I hadn’t.

“You’re our guest; you don’t pay,” they scowled. The atmosphere around me really did turn serious for about 6 seconds.

Coming from a country that has run on capitalism since its birth, I found this comforting, but odd nonetheless. I was a tourist in a quaint village on a remote island more than willing to pay his way, but was being scorned for the thought.

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Above: a unicorn fish, diced octopus (tentacles and head) and the usual fixings of garlic, chili peppers, Thai basil and ginger, ready for the wok. And after:

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Unicorn fish and snapper sashimi. These were nightly guests at Mao Yong’s table.

“Sit down, eat, drink and laugh,” was the message. For the next week, that was my treatment. And when I tried to move to the other side of the island for lodging, the villagers had me cancel my reservations and stay with them for next to nothing.

Humbled by the Spear.

My new friends took me spearfishing the following morning, even after I’d admitted I’d never even so much as held a gun before. I was still given the nicest, most hi-tech and powerful speargun they had. The ones they used were homemade of wood and hand-sharpened titanium poles.

With about 6 scooters, we all filed into a line, masks and snorkels dangling from our necks and guns slung over our shoulders. We looked like a procession of aquatic Quadraphenia mods coming down the road, and I stuck out like the Yankee sore thumb, a fresh and curious candidate from a far-flung land.

We left the scooters along a cliff and scaled down to a remote coral-laden coast. We finished suiting up and one by one jumped into a small channel through the reef between wave sets.

I watched the divers first, with careful detail. First, they’d toss their guns into the water, out beyond the surf. Then they’d hop in before a wave came, slip on their fins, and swim through its crest with impeccable timing — there wasn’t much space to screw up. I considered not only the pain, but the utter embarrassment of being washed back across the reef and back into shore in the form of minced meat.

Hopping in just before a set of waves, I got my fins on and made it through the crest without much difficulty. Now I only needed to find my sunken gun. I hadn’t tossed it far, but it didn’t take long to redirect my search downward and figure out that it had sunk. While taking note of how suddenly the reef dropped off into the dark, I spotted my gun. Phew, I hadn’t lost it. The only problem was that it was much deeper than any dive I’d made before. Damned if I wasn’t coming back with that speargun though.

I filled my lungs with air and pointed toward the deep, comfortably making it to that neutrally buoyant zone of about 30-35 feet when I realized I still had at least 10 more feet  to go.

After a deliberate pause, I kicked my way down the next few feet, and the final pages of Martin Eden flipped through my head: the ice cream headache, the muscle pains, eyeballs bulging out of my head. I got the gun, and broke the surface with a gasp, thinking no one had seen me. Another diver swam up to me, holding his nose and puffing out his cheeks, pointing to me with his thumb up in the air as if to say “hey white boy, you can dive!” Little did he know, my skull was splitting down the middle and I’d never dreamt of freediving so deep in my life. Of course, my new friends were all diving twice as deep and staying down twice as long.

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Johnny Lee, on his way up after a worryingly long, fruitless breath hold. Diving to about 30 or 40 feet once or twice is commendable, but repeatedly for 2-and-a-half hours? That’s the true endurance of a spearfisherman.

To make matters worse, I couldn’t shoot a damn thing. After two hours, with my lips turning blue, I shot an octopus, which is no large feat as they’re everywhere and once they know you’ve spotted them, their only real line of defense is remaining sessile. Fortunately for the octopus, though I did stick it in the head, the spear pulled out and it managed to retreat into a cave. I chased it 6, 7, 8 times until I could hold my breath no longer and noticed that the others were now getting out of the water. I decided to do the same, empty-handed.

As I shamefully scaled my way back up the cliffside along a creek bed, I braced myself for the ribbing I was about to endure. Granted, it had been my first time spearfishing, but the sea was so ripe with life that it seemed preposterous that I’d turn up empty-handed. I was due for a few jabs, I figured. Ah well, part of the learning curve.

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My scooter was needed for an emergency while we were out, so I rode home with the fish and gear in the bed of this pickup truck.

When I made it back up to the road, everyone was sitting on a rock wall, humored by my every clumsy step out of the water along a path they and their ancestors could tread blindfolded. Expecting the heckling to begin, I garnered only intrigue and admiration. They had probably just as well assumed I would drown, so just surviving earned some token amount of respect. A few later admitted that they were so worried about me they couldn’t concentrate on hunting. I felt a twinge of guilt, though there was plenty of food on the table that night.

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Mao Yong only shoots his favorite fish to eat. On this night, he chose these bigeye snappers for the tip of his spear, and the grill.

That afternoon, riding home in the bed of a pickup truck with a pile of fish in my lap and spears at my feet, I realized how taken I was by spearfishing. It’s much more personal than angling with a hook and line. You can conscientiously select the exact animal that you’re going to harvest, and there’s absolutely no by-catch (unless you spear yourself in the foot). Ironically, on my way out of Taiwan, my beloved fly rod was taken by airport customs. I decided I was done with the sport, and the day I got home, went online and ordered a speargun. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a new toy I can travel with, and if customs takes it somewhere else down the line, it’s not nearly as painful of a loss to cut as a fly rod.

Still, that night, food and drinks were on Mao Yong and Johnny Lee again. How they continuously supplied everyone Heineken — an expensive import — until two or three in the morning was a mystery, especially since they seemed to accept no money from anyone. How they managed to fill 15-20 stomachs a night might have seemed so too, if they hadn’t been several hundred years ahead of most cultures with the concept of conservation.

Saving Fish the Old Fashioned Way.

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Flying fish art adorns the whole island. The was on the ceiling at one of the breakfast and lunch establishments in Hongtou.

In the first few months of each lunar year, the Kuroshio Current, a warm water (also known as black water) current begins to make its way north from the tropics, bringing with it throngs of flying fish which congregate around Lanyu. Their return marks the beginning of a four-month-long festival on the island. New canoes are launched, barbecues are held and fireworks are lit. It’s kind of like a New England oyster festival crossed with the Fourth of July. It’s also a Rite of Passage for young fishermen-to-be.

The festival lasts from January or February until June (depending on the lunar calendar) and involves many ceremonies including the blessing of the boats, praying for a good haul of fish, summoning the fish, an opening night, a fish storing ceremony and a cessation ceremony. Flying fish are sacred, and believed to be a blessing from the gods.

What’s more interesting about this festival is not what Lanyu locals catch, but what they don’t. During the four- to six-month-long of the festival, no other fish is hunted or caught by any means. There’s no spearfishing, and the only source of protein is flying fish. There are many reasons for this, and one of which, coincidental or not, is conservation.

The arrival of throngs of tasty flying fish also happens to be the prime feeding season for larger predatory fish, for obvious reasons. So while the fishermen of Lanyu have their spears and longlines put away during the spring, this is when the larger fish are most abundant and easiest to catch. Just as they’re netting tiny flying fish by the hundreds, they could be hooking mahimahi, tuna, sailfish and marlin. Why? For one, the people of Lanyu know that this is a crucial time for the stocks of the larger fish. If sailfish, tuna and mahimahi don’t gorge themselves on flying fish during this time, they won’t be fortified enough to mate. If they don’t reproduce before being harvested, populations begin to thin out. Another, simpler reason is simply that flying fish — not just their roe atop a California Roll — are delicious. Smoked, dried, fried, pickled or raw. Smaller fish also carry less accumulated toxins like mercury than tuna or marlin.

Traditionally, the people of Lanyu avoid these larger species anyway. Why? It’s not that they haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea, in fact many have (there’s a strong literary movement on Lanyu led by Syaman Rapongan). Not every culture prides themselves on the size of their catch, and the people of Lanyu are primarily concerned with subsistence. That’s not to say that they don’t make sport out of fishing and spearing; Mao Yong is so revered in Hongtou for consistently spearing the biggest fish, and it’s no coincidence that he also has the most beautiful wife in town.

When it comes down truly big fish, the Lanyu simply don’t have — and haven’t ever had — the boat capacity or the equipment to safely capture them. Naturally, this has instilled a fear of big fish that has been engrained in the Da-wu culture since well before their contact with mainland Asia, and it’s made all the difference in the surrounding ecosystem. You could say it’s been the saving grace of the island. Just 90 miles away in the Philippines, fishing grounds are in dramatically worse condition. The same goes for most of Taiwan to the west, not to mention China.

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The sea surrounding Lanyu is also much cleaner than the waters around nearby islands, which may be attributed to the fact that Lanyu is one of the few places in Taiwan where people recreate in H2O (and therefore appreciate the virtue of clean water). Why do so few Taiwanese play in the water? Taiwan, like many seafaring cultures, has a deep-seated fear of the ocean, and for good reason. It’s right in the path of typhoons, and the currents are notoriously strong around the island.

Da-Wu Dugouts.

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(Photo from a 1931 Japanese Government publication, via Wikimedia)

The dugout canoes built by the Da-wu are small, about 12 feet (4 meters) long, and up until 2011 when an 18-paddle canoe was built for an open ocean crossing to mainland Taiwan, it had been about 100 years since they’ve built any larger. They’re delicately crafted and ornately decorated, each depicting a story, and each constructed with exactly 14 different types of wood. However pleasing to the eye, though, these were no open ocean-faring vessels, not to the Western sailor, anyhow, nor the Polynesian, for they had no outriggers or sails. Were you to find yourself whisked out to sea by current or wind, the dire reality of the situation would set in pretty quickly.

The tiny canoes are built with very little freeboard (the distance from the water line to the deck of the boat), and they’re easily swamped. Sitting in one during even the gentlest swell, I couldn’t imagine hooking a marlin, a yellowfin tuna or even a larger mahimahi for that matter. It just wouldn’t seem sensible (when the Da-wu hook marlin, they cut the line for safety’s sake). But then, I suppose that’s relative isn’t it? While I was fishing a couple of miles offshore with a 21-year-old boy, I watched a gray old man row out to sea, through the swells and out of sight all by his lonesome.

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Kao Gong (above), perplexed as to why I found him such an interesting subject. He had not the slightest clue why I cared to talk to him. He didn’t speak much Chinese at all, and he was skeptical, but my two translators and I (one for translating Da-wu to Chinese, and another for Chinese into English) were able to get him talking for the price of a couple of cold ones and a bag of betel nuts.

On Lanyu, boats are still something of a novelty. For Kao Gong (above, pronounced “Gao Gong”), it was like going from crawling to riding a bicycle. The old man grew up swimming to the fishing grounds. His family had no boat. Hardly anyone did. There simply wasn’t enough timber on the island to build them. Those who did have boats had to be wealthy enough to afford them – and wealth takes many forms on Lanyu. To this day, families still lay claim to the trees (the future boats) that they plant with something like a family initial or crest. Tree thievery has happened, and people have been killed over such arboreal indiscretions.

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Kao Gong, making faces at the camera. It’s likely he’d only ever had his picture taken but a few times.

These days, there are plenty of trees, or at least enough for each family to build their own boat. But back in the 1940s, Kao Gong used to swim out to sea with a stringer of wooden blocks and baited hooks, set them, and return to check his catch hours later.

The One Trouble With Paradise.

Though paradisiacal today, Lanyu has its own dark past. Locals don’t have to pay electricity or water bills, but that’s a meager retribution for the past several decades of nuclear waste dumping on the part of the Taiwanese government. Since 1982, a facility on the southern tip of the island has been receiving low-level radioactive solid waste. The placement is as strategic as can be, facing the Pacific on one side and separated from residential areas by hills behind it. The Taiwanese power company reports that everything is under strict control, but it’s anyone’s guess what’s really going on when the Republic of China only allows them to divulge the information that they want to reveal. Locals have been fighting to have the facility relocated, and university students have been fervently outspoken regarding the matter.

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Not the worst spot in the world to while away an afternoon.

I found Lanyu to be one of the most anachronistic islands I’ve ever visited. There’s not one franchise here – an incredible fact when you consider that in Lanyu’s parent nation, it’s almost impossible to walk a block without stumbling on a 7-11 or Starbucks. Life here is a sacred party that is fiercely protected. I think this may be why I could envision myself spending the rest of my life here. The Da-wu are as warm and mild-tempered as the climate, so long as you’re not trying to plant your flagpole in their soil, and monetary value starts and ends with the tourist; there’s no other need. The real currency on Lanyu is exchanged in the form of smiles and fish.

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Oh, and there’s a good little reef break or two, but I’ll leave you to find those out for yourself.

Getting There.

Fly Dailyair from Taitung Airport (台東航空站) to Lanyu (Orchid Airport) (25 minutes) for about $1,400 NTD ($50 USD), take a 3-4-hour ferry from Kenting, or a 2-3-hour ferry from Taitung. When you land, make sure to rent a scooter, which will run you about $300 TWD ($10 USD) per day.

Where to Eat.

Everywhere. Yeyin mutton and breakfast in Hongtou are not to be missed. Also, try Epicurean for dinner, though keep in mind that it may be the only place on the entire island where reservations are needed.

Where to Stay.

There are plenty of homestays ($400+ TWD) all over the island ranging from the most rudimentary and spartan to the Blue Ocean dive/eco-resort (yes, just one, for now) with wooden cabins ($2,350 TWD). Book ahead or wing it, there’s always a room on Lanyu.

A special thanks to my translator and guide, Fei-Yen Peng.

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