Farming the Sea (Jeff Mullins, January 2008)

Garuda Magazine January 2008 (p.46-47) 

www.garudamagazine.comwww.reefwreckandcritter.com

On a recent trip to Indonesia, we spent a week exploring the rich coral reefs around the coasts of Nusa Penida, Lembongan and Ceningan, Bali's nearest island neighbours.

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We dived in sheltered bays among delicate hard coral reefs and in roaring currents on exposed reef faces coated with soft corals. 

The marine life, like many of Indonesia's dive locations, was incredibly rich and divers. The number of fish and invertebrate species seen on each dive was hard to comprehend; at times I was unable to decide which subject to photograph first.

For our explorations around the islands, we rented a boat from locals on Nusa Lembongan. The twelve-metre-long timber boat was sturdy, and had shade overhead plus two large outboard motors powering it, with the added luxury of a ladder to get us back onboard.

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Between dives our deck hand Made explained that the boat was normally used to transport seaweed from his village - Jungutbatu on Lembongan island - to Toyapakeh a village just a few kilometres away on Penida Island. "Why did the villagers need seaweed." we asked?

It transpired during our break between dives, that the seaweed was grown by the residents of Nusa Lembongan and Ceningan plus nearby Nusa Penida, for export to a worldwide market. An extract from the seaweed known as Carrageenan is used as a food stabiliser, emulsifier and thickener for many of the foods we consume every day.

Made's Father and Mother plus his sister and cousins worked the family seaweed plots in the sheltered bay in front of their home, In fact nearly all of the residents of Made's village and nearby Lembongan Village are seaweed farmers.

Their crops are laid out in an intricate maze, clearly visible at low tide inside the shelter of a barrier reef. Seen from a high vantage point the plots form a marine patchwork-quilt in shades of deep aqua, turquoise and pale blue. Adding to this spectacle, the farmers themselves pole through the shallows in their brightly coloured sampans.

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Made - in typically generous Balinese style - offered to show us through the seaweed plots near his village.  At the next low tide we drifted in his small wooden sampan (canoe) among the farms, watching entire families tend their seaweed. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but we needn't have tried, before long it seemed everyone inside the reef was aware of our presence. Young ladies giggled as we tried to photograph them working, while older farmers stopped to watch us - watching them!

I slipped into the clear shallow waters with mask and snorkel and watched two sisters laying out new seaweed between wooden stakes that had been hammered into the seafloor. Their Mother and Father worked a few metres away collecting fully-grown seaweed and loading into their sampan.

Another group cleaned stray algae and sea grass that had drifter into their partially grown crop. Their particular plot was closer to shore, so less current and smaller waves allowed algae growth that encouraged fish to eat their seaweed. It was quite apparent that the best location was just inside the surf-line, where the most water movement encouraged fast growth with less algae and predator.

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Back on shore the whole village was a hive of activity. Ladies worked in small shaded huts, tying short sections of weed at short intervals at regular intervals along nylon cord, ready for laying. Others sorted through the day's harvest seaweed, laying it out to dry in the sun on plastic tarpaulins.

The seaweed is laid out to dry for two or three days in full sunshine and up to five days when overcast conditions prevail. After drying it is packed in bags and transported to Nusa Penida for transport to Surabaya on the island of Java via Bali. In Surabaya the seaweed is processed for final shipment to the World market.

Seaweed farming on Bali's offshore islands is a relatively new industry. Farming originated on mainland Bali in 1981, when experimental farms near the south coast operated for a few years. These were closed due to fears that their presence would interfere with expanding tourism in the nearby Nusa Dua area.

The potential for farming the offshore islands was evaluated and the sheltered, shallow and clear waters in front of Lembongan and Ceningan Villages proved to be ideal. In 1986 a small percentage of the islanders became seaweed farmers and as markets became established gradually more of the population began farming.

Today everyone is involved in some way with seaweed farming. Even those with jobs in the tourist industry are often part-time farmers working on the family seaweed plots before of after work.

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Made's father explained to us that before seaweed farming, life was full of daily trials. Famines were not uncommon. He had been a fisherman, like many of the residents of Lembongan. Sometimes travelling to mainland Bali to barter his excess cath for other food requirements.

Rough seas in the wet season would often restrict their fishing range and prevednt them from travelling to the mainland. Only very limited crops were grown in the wet season as there is no limited fresh water supply on these islands. Food was always in short supply. Houses were very basic and manufactured from coral excavated from the reed, palm leaves and woven mat walls. Hygiene was generally quite poorToday the villages of Lembongan and Jungutbatu have daily ferries bringing all food and supplies from mainland Bali. Concrete, tiles and timber and now used to construct houses and other buildings. According to Made's father, life on the islands is now much easier, gone are the very poor times before seaweed farming began.

During our time at the islands our interest in seaweed farming grew. On our non-diving days we walked among the villages of Lembongan and Jungutbatu, watching the locals prepare farming equipment, drying their seaweed and bagging it for shipment.

One particular day we helped launch a new boat that had been made for transporting seaweed across to Nusa Penida. The boat had made 50 metres from the sea in Jungutbatu, and had been laid onto small wooded tree trunks, ready to be rolled down the sea. We came onto the scene where forty odd people were pulling ropes and pushing the hull, but the boat wasn’t budging.

Our help was called on and with much groaning the boat began to move - albeit slowly. As the slope of the beach increased it gathering speed and was launched with lots of spray, cheering and laughter into the turquoise water of the bay.

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Later that day we travelled over to Nusa Penida on a seaweed run. Taking the inshore route, we followed the coast of Lembongan island, north then east, passing some of the island's landmarks; 'Shipwrecks', Lembongan's premier surf break, where a wrecked ship's bow sits high on the reef. Then the lighthouse tower, on the northeast corner. Finally at the end of the village dense mangroves line the shore for a few kilometres.

We crossed the Toyapakeh Straight - a narrow, but very deep stretch of water separating Nusa Lembongan & Ceningan from Nusa Penida. Fierce currents are almost always running through this straight, on our journey the boat was being dragged sideways as much as we were travelling forward. On the beach of Toyapakeh village on Nusa Penida, young men came down to unload the large bags of seaweed by hand from the boats pulled up along the beach. These were stacked into small pick-ups and delivered to a trader in the village, who then shores and sometimes further fries the seaweed prior to shipping.

Seeing the whole process of planting, cultivation and harvesting, plus meeting the families who labour on their farms each low tide around these islands was fascinating. i now find myself checking-out the ingredients list on food packaging to see if the additive 407 (or Carrageenan) is included. It is surprising how many items do. Including  - ice cream, preserved meats, toothpaste and dog food. Take the time to look for yourself, it is highly likely that the preservatives were made form seaweed form these waters. If the tide is low, they will be out wading among their crops right now.

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Jeff Mullins is freelance photo-journalist who shares his time between Perth, Western Australia and Tulamben, Bali. His works have been published widely in diving and travel related magazines and books around the World. Jeff runs Reef, Wreck & Critter personalised dive tours from Tulamben in Bali, discovering the underwater delights of Bali. Contact him by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Or see his website at www.reefwreckandcritter.com

Original images: from top to bottom: Crops are tied to cord and laid out between wooden posts, and then left to grow just off the seabed; Father, Mother and Daughter plant their seaweed offshore from Jungutbatu Village; Ladies from Jungutbatu Village sort their crop into small floating baskets; Seaweed is layed out in the sun on plastic sheets to dry after harvesting; Seaweed farms stretch between the two islands of Nusa Lembongan and Ceningan.

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