Legend has it that Madagascar’s nomadic Vezo fishermen can spend hours underwater with a single breath. Photographer James Patrick joins them in an attempt to separate fact from fiction—and perhaps catch some fish of his own.
My right arse cheek is balanced on the narrow edge of the canoe. An uncomfortable wooden slat under my neck supports the rest of my body weight. Sleep is not forthcoming. The seconds slow in the breezeless sun while I contemplate the futility of my contortion.
Painfully readjusting again, I catch sight of the gently snoring fishermen fore and aft. Their equally contorted bodies affirm my suspicions. This discomfort doesn’t stem from my failure to appreciate the ergonomics of a hollowed-out tree trunk, but from my utter unsuitability to the hardships of Vezo life.
These nomadic fishermen have spent the last few centuries navigating the lonely beaches and desert islands of Madagascar’s west coast in outrigger canoes. Although the remote beauty of this coast has brought a scattering of five-star hotels, their luxuries belie the unforgiving environment that has forged the superhuman capacities of the Vezo.
My companions are Veloko, Simon, Raja and Denis—a free-diving, spear-fishing Vezo crew who have agreed to take me to their favored hunting grounds, 20 miles out to sea from Belo sur Mer, western Madagascar. The fishing town lies at the midpoint of the Vezo’s migratory stretch—between Tulear and Mahajanga. I have come here to investigate rumors that have fascinated me since my first days in Madagascar. Stories of a tribe of sea gypsies; part-fish, part-human—as comfortable above the waves as they are below with claims of divers spending hours submerged on a single breath.
From across the water, a breeze licks my sweating brow, stirs the rags of the patched sail, and rouses the crew from their improbable slumbers. With the grace of acrobats, the four fishermen prepare the boat for the rising wind. The sail ripples, fills and drags the canoe into life.
As the coast slips from view, I put the fish-man question to Veloko, the captain. “Us Vezo are not one ethnicity,” he replies, dodging—or maybe misunderstanding—my question. He goes on to talk about the practices and techniques of the Vezo. A distillation of heritage from the original settlers of Madagascar—Indonesian seafarers—and their East African counterparts who arrived several centuries later. Those who settled near the coast found their gaze drawn away from the arid interior in favor of the brilliant turquoise of the Mozambique Channel and the bounty beneath its surface.
These coastal dwellers sought subsistence in the seas, following shoals of fish hundreds of miles as they migrated through the relatively calm waters between Madagascar and mainland Africa. Over generations, the practices of these nautical nomads developed into an identity. And their mastery of the Western waves allowed them to carve out a living in fish and trade.
Every ounce of me is screaming. Blood pounds in my ears. A primeval need for oxygen is begging me to gasp. But for a serene second, everything fades as I admire the grace of this fish-man in his kingdom.
To this day, traditional Vezo vessels dominate these waters and, with the exception of a handful of rusting fishing ships, are the only boats to be seen from Madagascar’s west coast. Lakanas are the most prolific; canoes constructed from a single tree trunk with a mast, sail and outrigger, and light enough to catch even the smallest breeze and repairable with materials harvested from the forests. The larger botsy follow a design taught by French shipbuilders in the 19th century and are the chosen method of transport for anyone wishing to avoid the treacherous sands of the inland roads.
However, it is the vessels beyond the western horizon that are now defining the Vezo’s world. Huge trawlers from foreign nations have decimated the shoals that sustain this ancient lifestyle. Without the fish, the Vezo migration and with it, their identity, seem doomed.
A bare sand bar interrupts the sea ahead. A bone white strip in the endless blue. We have arrived. The sail is furled and Simon dons an ancient mask, snorkel and patched fins before slipping into the water.
I follow him, a GoPro clutched in my hand to capture his metamorphosis. Raja passes a speargun over the side. It’s handmade, carved from a single piece of wood, the spear a sharpened rod of construction steel, the elastic taken from the inner tube of a bike tyre. With barely a ripple, Simon disappears beneath the surface. I attempt the same, kicking violently to keep up with the figure as he descends, arrow-like, into the depths.
At three meters down, I already feel the pressure building in my forehead and a growing desire to breathe. I mentally remind myself to quit smoking as I continue my dive, willing the seabed to appear. The dark form ahead begins to slip from view, ever deeper. I kick on, forcing myself to follow. Down and down.
Here, shapes materialize from the gloom. Below, I see Simon take hold of a dark object with one hand. His body anchored to the rock, he scouts the crevices, moving with the swing of the current. Every ounce of me is screaming. Blood pounds in my ears. A primeval need for oxygen is begging me to gasp. But for a serene second, everything fades as I admire the grace of this fish-man in his kingdom. But only for a second. On the brink of suffocation, I bolt for the surface, exploding out of the water with a gasp entirely unbefitting of my 30 seconds under the waves. Today will be a long day.
Simon emerges a full minute later. A large, speckled fish skewered on the spear. Both fish and spear are passed up to Raja who separates them, throwing the spear back to Simon and the fish into the hull of the canoe. Simon rearms the gun and dives again. I wait this one out, still reacquainting myself with oxygen. By the time he resurfaces with another fish, I’ve barely caught my breath.
We repeat the process for several hours, the fishermen rotating duties, me attempting to capture the critical moment on camera but unable to match either the depth or the longevity of the Vezo’s dives. On the second point, Veloko clocked four minutes and 48 seconds underwater; an extraordinary feat, but his casual resurfacing suggests he could continue for longer—he seemed to only return to the surface to deposit his catch.
Eventually, with 15 or so fish of assorted shapes and sizes in the hull—not a single one contributed by me—I’m told we’re going to warm up then head for the sand bar. One by one, the men climb aboard and spread themselves out under the mid-afternoon sun.
I’m just closing my eyes when I hear a foul splat next to my feet. I look down at the offending object—tossed from the water by Raja—and find myself face-to-face with one of the ugliest creatures I’ve ever seen. The name ‘sea cucumber’ doesn’t conjure images of elegance or beauty but, if anything, it’s flattering when compared to the reality—a wrinkled exterior, sickly green, speckled, shapeless, and stinking of fish. Somehow both squishy and firm to the touch, it possesses the noble defensive technique of expelling part of its respiratory system through its anus in order to confuse predators.
A quick exchange between Raja and the three on the boat has Denis and Simon over the side of the canoe in seconds. Veloko steers us in the direction Raja is pointing. I prompt the captain for an explanation. “Money fish” comes the response.
It turns out the reef fish we’ve been catching aren’t good eating and would sell for only a few cents. They are destined for the plates of the fishermen’s families. However, the grotesque maritime tumor now residing in the bottom of our boat can fetch $15 per kilo—they’re a delicacy in East and Southeast Asia.
Eventually, the crew are content they’ve fully combed the area, and we head for the tiny desert island. Who buys these? I ask, staring at the crew’s haul of sea cucumbers. “A dealer comes through town each day. He takes the best sea cucumbers to Morondava,” replies Veloko (who appears to do most of the talking for the crew). And then? I press. “Chinese come to buy them,” he replies without judgement, seemingly at peace with differing culinary traditions. “In this place, it’s the only fish left we can sell”.
Three other lakanas are pulled up on the miniscule island as we haul our canoe out of the breaking waves. One of the crews sleeps beneath their sail, rigged up to provide shade on this featureless spit of sand. “Once, we used to spend days on these islands,” Raja explains while the captain measures out steps in the sand. “When the fish were good, we could dry our catch here and return to town with a boatful to sell”. With the face of a teenager, Raja doesn’t look old enough to be reminiscing. I ask how old he is. “Twenty-three,” he replies, and, sensing my next question, adds, “But I started in the boats when I was eight.”
Veloko has finished his pacing and is scooping away at the fine sand with two hands. From the excavated hole, he produces a yellow jerry can and a pile of sticks. Though these islands are now considered part of Kirindy Mitea National Park—and therefore off-limits overnight—Vezo crews still stash water and firewood in secret spots below the sand. To this day, islands like these are vital to the Vezo—a sanctuary from bandit attacks on the coastal villages, refuges from sudden storms, and staging posts for the seasonal migrations.
On the beach, the wives wait. Their husbands do not always return. As the canoes are forced into ever deeper water in search of a catch, more boats are lost forever.
The crew grab four of the fish and descale them, gut them and have them on the grill in less than two minutes. I take advantage of the natural pause after the meal to ask how they perceive their future. In my experience, this is never a straightforward line of enquiry with traditional cultures.
The culture is fatalistic. This is not to deny the existence of ambition; there’s always the shipbuilding entrepreneur or fisherman who sends his children to an expensive school in Tulear. But focusing too much on the future implies an ability to change one’s circumstances by altering the natural course of events. The Vezo, after centuries of following nature’s ebb and flow, see such an attitude as arrogance. “Many still migrate,” Veloko tells me of his friends. “Most of the net fishermen have already left with their families heading north. We will move on too, when the sea stops giving here”.
The wind changes and we seize the chance to make it back before nightfall. The crew’s tuneless, heavily accented rendition of a pop song accompanies our return to the mainland. As we near Belo sur Mer, we catch sight of other lakanas, on the same wind, making for the natural harbor. On the beach, the wives wait. Their husbands do not always return. As the canoes are forced into ever deeper water in search of a catch, more boats are lost forever.
Getting a clear response from a nomadic culture, it turns out, is beyond my abilities. The Vezo society, I gather, is built around a response to the rhythms of nature; moving with the fish. They invest only in the essentials of their livelihoods—boat and equipment. They eat from that day’s catch, trading for other essential foodstuffs, such as rice. They celebrate with any money left over. Denis recalls when a huge haul of sea cucumbers had earned them AR 1,500,000 ($450) a few months ago. The crew bought a new sail and mast, then went drinking. They woke up, two days later, with empty pockets and returned to sea.
With the sun blazing orange behind us and the shore approaching, three women saunter down the steep, sandy beach towards our boat. The men hand over fish and sea cucumbers to their wives—who will handle the sale of their catch—then drag the boat up the slope.
I accompany Veloko’s wife who carries our four, now-decrepit looking sea cucumbers towards a man in a shack at the top of the beach. A hungry gleam in his eye tells me he is used to getting his way in matters of money. Veloko’s wife presents the slimy specimens. He turns up his lip and indicates an array of sea cucumbers beside him. A few, like ours, are green and speckled, but much larger. Another is fiery red and covered in tentacles. Our prize haul looks shameful next to these even more ludicrous creatures. The dealer not interested, Veloko’s wife casts our treasure down the beach.
“It’s time to move north,” she says to herself, as she turns and strides back across the bleached white sand.
James Patrick is a journalist and photographer operating in the most remote districts of Madagascar and East Africa. Born and raised in London but captivated by forgotten places, he aspires to share the beauty and brutality of life at the margins.