The Octopus Hunters of Indonesia
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The Octopus Hunters of Indonesia

Diving beneath the waves with some seriously low-tech fishermen .

Maulidan likes to think of himself as a "tiger of the sea." The 35-year-old fisherman lives in Pulo Aceh, a chain of tiny islands off the northern coast of Sumatra. It's not the farthest tip of Indonesia—that's Pulau Weh—but it's pretty damn close.

Maulidan and his neighbor Rahmad are octopus hunters. The men dive beneath the waves, searching the coral reefs off the coast of Pulau Nari for a prey that's a pro at not being found. Some days the men catch enough octopus to earn Rp 200,000 ($14 USD) by selling their catch to exporters, who send them overseas to places like Malaysia, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. On average, four metric tons of octopus are exported from Pulo Aceh every year.


But other days the sea if far less welcoming. they spend five hours in the ocean only to paddle back in empty-handed.

"My fortune in the sea is much like a tiger's in the jungle," Maulidan told me. "Sometimes we get plenty, but more often than not we get nothing. That's just life in Pulo Aceh. We're used to it"

Rahmad (left) dan Maulidan (right) get their equipment ready.

The day I met Maulidan and Rahmad the pair were lucky, catching a dozen octopus, spearing each one with a curved metal tool locally called a gancu. The creatures would try to hide from the man, changing colors to camouflage themselves amid the colorful coral. Whenever one of the fishermen would ensnare one, it would puff out an inky cloud in self-defense.

By the end of the day, the dozen octopus earned the men Rp 849,000 (almost $60 USD), more than enough to buy groceries for their families. But they would still need to be back in the water the next day, searching beneath the waves for another catch.

“It’s our job to hunt octopus," Mauildan told me. "We don’t want our wife and neighbors to think that we’re lazy."

On the days when the sea is too rough the men walk up into the mountains to search for rattan. It's a simple life, one where the land and the sea provide most of what the men need. “The sea and the mountain are where we make a living," Maulidan explained. "There’s fish in the sea and rattan in the mountains. That’s what we do everyday."

Maulidan told me that he prefers the ocean to the mountains because you can work for yourself. But the source of their income, the octopus, is now under threat. Other fisherman have turned to destructive bomb fishing methods to increase their hauls. The plastic bottles packed with explosives stun the creatures, causing them to float to the surface. But they also destroy the coral, further reducing future marine populations in the process.


"Some even go as far as to poisoning the octopus," Maulidan said. "So now we don’t get to catch as many octopus as we used to. Whenever they (the fishermen from outside the island) fish in our water, the octopus vanish. That’s what saddens us the most."