Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: The Big Fish Fry

By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence

10 April 2012

The Claymore has returned, Enric and the rest of the team are back on the island, and there is a fish fry in the making.  I walked down from Highest Point to the Landing where everyone would gather to board the longboat and catch the fish.  I got down there thinking that maybe the plan would be scrapped because it was raining—a lot. Sure enough there were just three other people who also didn’t know if it was going to happen.


The Community Comes Together

Then about 10:30 quads started to arrive.  It was happening.  The Pitcairners were soon pushing on the side of the long boat and it slid right down the rails into the harbor.  The waves were not too bad and the sea was pretty flat.  It had rained all night so there would be lots of fresh water, which Bren says is not good for fishing.  Also there would be soil in the water below the slides, but we could avoid that.

After 30 minutes about 20 people, young and old, were loaded up with their paraphernalia: hand lines, fishing poles, spear guns, and scuba gear.  We broke through the surf and headed east inside of Adam’s Rock.  We got to the spot we’d hoped to fish, but the swell was way too high and we made a hasty retreat.  Randy Christian was out there with his boat and it looked like he was there to stay.  His brother Shawn was following us in the Stabicraft.

We ended up anchoring right in front of Bounty Bay.  Everyone was busy getting their equipment into the water.  It was like being in a party boat, except there wasn’t that frantic kind of competition to get your hook in the water first because all the fish was destined to be eaten at the common fish fry tonight.  Pitcairn, despite the normal conflicts that arise after 200 years of living in a close-knit community, is still communal in a lot of ways.  That is a good way to live.


Wrapped in clouds or drenched in rain, Pitcairn’s rocky coast can seem very unwelcoming. Add in a fish fry and a bunch of smiling locals though and the warmth of the community takes over. Photo by Andrew Howley


Fish to Fry and Sacrificial Eels

The first person that I saw catch a fish was one of the old timers.  He was just sitting on the deck quietly, with his face to the bow, letting the fish do the work.  He jerked slightly and pulled his hand line in.  It was a nanwe, which is one of the prize yet abundant fish around the island.  Then someone else got one, and another, all nanwe.

Bren and I were using heavy line.  We switched to smaller gear.  Sure enough as soon as we did that Bren hooked into a fish.  It was a moray eel.  She said they don’t eat the eels but you pretty much have to kill them because they roll themselves up around the line and are almost impossible to get off otherwise.

I hooked a fish, a small snapper.  The rest were catching a mix of snapper, grouper, and nanwe.  In the meantime Dave went off spear fishing in scuba gear with our underwater cinematographer Manu San Felix in the Stabicraft.  They were probably going to outfish us all.

The rain started to pound and didn’t let up for a couple of hours.  Even though it was plenty warm I started to get a bit chilled, just sitting and fishing.  I warmed up quick though when I hooked what I thought was a fish.  Then I could feel I was solidly hooked to the bottom.  I tugged hard and sure enough it let loose, but it was heavy—something was on the line.  I pulled it up and there was another, bigger moray eel.  Yet another one of these guys would be getting sacrificed.

I caught a few more small snappers; Bren did the same.   We never did catch a nanwe, while some of our fellow fishermen had hooked and landed at least 10.  If the fish fry were up to me we would have been starving.  After another hour of the pounding rain it let up and the fishermen decided that we had enough.  We headed for the Landing.  The Stabicraft followed.


Laying Out the Feast

Once we got the fish to the place where they clean them we had a good pile.  Then Dave brought his.  He had parrot fish, some bigger groupers, and snappers so he added all the big fish to the pile.  One and all pitched in to scale, gut, chunk or filet, skin and then thin-slice the fish until we had a nice big pile of white flesh in a bowl.

One and all pitched in to scale, gut, chunk or filet, skin and then thin-slice the fish until we had a nice big pile of white flesh in a bowl. Photo by J. Michael Fay


In the meantime Randy came back in with his boat.  He had snappers and grouper.  Then he pulled two nice yellowfin tuna out of his boat.  Wow that was the jackpot of the day.  One was about 8 lbs and the other about 15 lbs.  These guys were cut into chunky filets.  Randy hauled them home to make fish balls for the dinner.  The rest went with the women for the fry.


Enjoying the “Bounty” of the Sea

Just a few hours later the entire town congregated in the public square.  Everyone brought something.  There was manioc, taro, breadfruit, greens, and about 10 different kinds of fish, including tuna sashimi.  What a feast it was.

The entire town showed up for the feast. Which is to say it was attended by the entire permanent human population within several hundred miles. All 60 or so. Photo by J. Michael Fay

Afterwards, Enric showed the Pitcairners the results of the marine survey he and his team had done here and at the surrounding islands.  People were blown away by the presentation.  So much life in their waters.  You could see that they were all very proud of what they have.  It was a fitting end to our voyage, eating from the “bounty” of a rich and healthy sea and discussing how to keep it that way forever.

After the fish fry, Enric showed the Pitcairners the preliminary results of the marine survey. People were blown away by the presentation. So much life in their waters. You could see that they were all very proud of what they have. Photo by J. Michael Fay



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Meet the Author
Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.