As I looked out of the window, I saw an endless expanse of glistening blue-green waters with tiny white specks floating amongst them.
We flew closer and I felt my ears pop as I saw the bright, white sand coming closer. The seaplane dipped, and landed right into the water before taxing onto the makeshift runway on the island. We got out of the seaplane, onto a wooden platform that led to the resort.
Being able to see deep into the ocean is a commonplace thing in the Maldives. The water is almost transparent and one can spot numerous fish while walking along the beach. The 1200 islands of the Maldives are grouped into 26 coral atolls, situated in the Indian Ocean. ‘Atolls’ are giant, ring-like coral formations that are hundreds of kilometers wide and have fragmented into islands. The coral formations make Maldives a great destination for snorkeling and diving, in addition to being a great destination for seafood lovers. On our very first evening we decided to taste the catch of the day. Instead of sitting back and allowing someone else to bring it to us, my husband Vivek decided to book us on a sunset fishing trip so we could catch it ourselves. I did not share Vivek’s enthusiasm for catching fish, and so, I decided to pretend to fish and just watch the sunset instead. I even considered taking a book along so I would have something to read if the trip proved to be really boring.
Even before the boat left the shore, all the amateur fisherpeople on deck were given a complete demonstration. I had imagined that we would be given fishing rods, with lines and hooks at the end and the pulley-type mechanism with what you’d reel the fish in – somewhat along the lines of what I’d seen in various books that depicted characters fishing. We were instead given fishing lines. There was a hook at the end of the line, that was submerged a few meters under the water where there was a possibility to catch fish that swim at that depth. This demonstration alone was enough to freak me out because one of the requirements was to hook fish food onto the fishing line, which was then thrown into the water. I couldn’t bring myself to even touch what I thought was a worm, let alone put it on a hook. Vivek added to my misery by telling me that we weren’t using worms, but chopped up pieces of fish to catch fish.
“Oh my God! We’re making cannibals out of the fish! This is so wrong,” I said.
“It’s not really cannibalism, these are smaller fish that will lure the bigger fish,” said Vivek. “They would anyway be eaten by the bigger fish, so their lives haven’t been lost in vain!”
I wasn’t quite convinced with this logic, because I didn’t want to touch fish parts or any other bait. So, I enlisted the help of one of the crew to be my own personal bait loader. I prepared myself to ensure I wouldn’t catch any fish. The guide said that we were to wait until we felt a tug on the line, and then follow a very specific wrist moment to ensure that the hook lodged onto the fish. I decided to ignore any tugs, which meant that the fish would eat the food and go on their way. Meanwhile, I could stare into the horizon and enjoy the sunset. I reasoned that even if I were complicit in Vivek’s catching fish, this act of feeding the others would take care of the karmic balance in the universe. We began fishing, and I was proven wrong in ten minutes. I felt a tug on my line and I jumped up with a loud yell. Somehow, this movement accidentally mimicked the wrist flick I hadn’t paid attention to, and before I could finish jumping around in shock, the guide helped me reel in a bananafish. I was shocked and didn’t want to go anywhere near it. The bananafish was beautiful – bright yellow, with green and blue stripes. It didn’t help that I thought it looked a little like Flounder from the Little Mermaid. I also had a bad feeling that I had met this very fish earlier that day during my snorkeling trip. The guide urged me to take a picture with my catch, and all I could do was hold it as far away from me as possible and scrunch my eyes shut so I didn’t have to see the evidence.
Vivek was in splits that I had become the first person on the entire boat to catch a fish, given my excessive planning to avoid catching one. His amusement did not stop him from making plans on what to do with the fish, though.
“That bananafish will make a good soup,” he said. “It can be the appetizer. I will catch something bigger, as the main course. And if I catch a really big fish, it can be lunch AND dinner!”
As time went on, nobody on the ship caught anything. Many buckets of bait were exhausted in the combined quest of all passengers on board. People kept yelling that they felt a tug on the line, but when they reeled it in, there was nothing left except a clean hook. Our combined bad fishing skills were ensuring that many fish were feasting on the bait that evening. Unfortunately for me, the guide began referring to me as the “fishing expert” on the boat, even though I caught nothing else after. Every time I felt a tug, I didn’t move a muscle so the fish could eat the bait and move on. I began praying that someone else would catch something, so I would no longer be the focus of attention. My prayers were answered when Vivek yelled, “I’ve caught something!” The guide jumped up to help him. Even with the two of them, it took a lot of effort to reel in the fish. Everyone began guessing what the giant fish could be.
“Oh my God! That’s a shark,” said someone as the head began emerging.
Suddenly, everyone on the boat abandoned all pretenses of fishing to see the 1 meter wide white shark that Vivek had managed to catch. There was a lot of commotion on the deck as everyone leaned over to see the large white belly jerking around on the side of the boat. Most people pulled out their phones to try and take photos of it. In all the chaos, the guide took over from Vivek, ostensibly because a novice fisherman would have no clue on reeling in a shark, especially given how everyone was trying to push forward to see it. As we watched in awe, the guide flicked his wrist and there was a movement in the water.
“Wait, where did the shark go,” asked Vivek.
“Sharks are a protected species here. It’s illegal to kill a shark, so we have to let it back into the ocean,” said the guide. Vivek looked like a lottery winner whose earnings had just sunk deep into the sea.
“If it makes you feel better, nobody’s every managed to catch a shark before,” said the guide in an attempt to cheer Vivek up.
“What! How would that make me feel better? I didn’t even take a selfie with the shark!”
Vivek realized that there was no point in being disappointed over the lost opportunity to prove he caught a shark and went back to fishing. That shark turned out to be a good luck charm. Everyone on the boat began catching fish, though we didn’t have any further luck that night.
The next day, the chef at the Conrad made a soup out of the bananafish, which was served right on the beach. The soup was very similar to a miso soup in consistency, but it was made in the traditional Maldivian style. The soup was mildly spicy, and had a citrusy tang that came from the lemon used in the preparation. Like all the seafood dishes at the Maldives, it was delicious, but Vivek insisted it tasted the best of all because we had caught it ourselves, though he was a tad disappointed that we hadn’t caught much else.
“Imagine, if the soup is so good, how much better it would’ve been to have a bigger fish, that could’ve been fried or cooked in a local style,” he said.
“It’s OK,” I tried consoling him. “Anyway, your aim was to eat something you caught, you didn’t necessarily have a size in mind,” I reminded him.
“Bananafish may satisfy my dream of eating something we caught. But that shark will always be the one that got away,” he said morosely.