Rapa Expedition: Gone Fishin’ … With Rocks

The Hanse Explorer has arrived at Rapa Iti, the site of the latest National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition. In order to understand fishing and food from a local perspective, Expedition Leader Paul Rose elected to go on a fishing trip with Rapa fisherman, and the experience was eye-opening.

Collecting rocks Jerome Petit
Collecting rocks for fishing. (Photo by Jerome Petit)

Fishing in Rapa’s waters is quite a unique experience. Rapa’s clever, traditional techniques are totally unlike my typical routine. Before going fishing I normally sort out a large pile of stainless steel, carbon, Kevlar, low-friction, high-tech, light-weight and heavily expensive implements. Not here on Rapa; the first order of business is to search for a handy bay and sail in and collect rocks from the beach. As I collected armloads of rocks on our recent fishing trip, one of our local fishermen, Octave, made sure that we only collected those of a particular shape and size.

The Technique

Once back onboard the city-hall fishing boat and heading a few miles out to sea, Octave revealed the method we were to use: Flying fish chopped into good-sized chunks are used for bait and a small piece from each is folded around a fishing hook. The hooks are attached to a piece of string conveniently ripped from the frayed tops of the bags the rocks are carried in. The concealed hook and bait is then laid on top of the rock and wrapped a few times with monofilament fishing line. A bit of the line is held in the fisherman’s teeth to make a loop (which also grants a good taste of the bait) and a special slip-knot is tied.

Tying bait to rack with teeth. Scott Ressler
A local fisherman tying bait to the rock with his teeth. (Photo by Scott Ressler)

Octave and the others located our fishing site by lining up angles from coastal reference points and hills and then by looking at and sensing the sea conditions around us, as well as monitoring the ocean current. This changes depending on the day, the season, the state of the tide, the phase of the moon, the weather and what their instincts are telling them.

Once at an appropriate site, the bait- and hook-laden rocks are lowered 90 feet down into the water. At that point the line is jerked upwards, the slip-knot releases, the rock drops to the bottom and the bait is left hanging at the perfect depth. But not for long! These guys know what they are doing and in just a few minutes, amid calm and soft-spoken encouragement (as opposed to the shouting and hooting that goes on when I fish), a yellow-fin tuna was hauled in hand-over-hand. No screaming fishing reels, no mechanical assistance, no gloves—just careful, tough hands to do the job.

Rocks ready to fish! (Photo by Jerome Petit)

With the help of a gaff hook the tuna was brought aboard; a fifty-pound beauty. The rock-weighted lines continued down and tuna kept coming up. If we had stayed there all day the boat would have been full to the gunwales. But, as is often the case, modern machinery clashed with tradition—the outboard engine refused to start and we had to suffer the indignity of calling for the Rapa cross-bay ferry boat to come out and tow us in.

Hope for the Future of Fishing

We might have been under tow but we still glowed as only successful fishermen do. Of course, the trip was living proof that by carefully managing their waters, the natives of Rapa can allow hand-line fishing within the Rahui zone sustainably.

Speaking of sustainability, Rapa is a very special, high latitude, cold water, sub-tropical region and is a long way from other centers of biodiversity. It’s life on the edge, in many ways, but without the Rahui system of designated zones for different activities, this tiny volcanic summit in the middle of the Pacific could lose its ability to sustain local wildlife as well as humans. Perhaps lessons from Rapa fishing could be applied to other corners of our oceans!


Read All Posts From the Rapa 2014 Expedition

Learn More About Pristine Seas

Worldwide Voyage Using Traditional Polynesian Navigation


The Pristine Seas expedition to Rapa is sponsored by Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.



Meet the Author
Paul Rose is an ardent explorer, television presenter, journalist, author, and Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society, and an Expedition Leader on the Pristine Seas team.