By Astor Wong, Hong Kong


The waters of the Sulu Sea during winter, under constant attack by typhoons, are notorious for being perilous. Even skilled and experienced fishermen avoid setting sail during this time of the year and seek other ways of livelihood. There was but one exception. At dusk on a November day; on the vast and boundless ocean, one could only see two boats, fearlessly cleaving through rough waves and tough winds, determined to get to an off-the-grid island named Cawili regardless of the potential hazards. In the name of exploration, a diverse group of passengers, from the United States, the United Kingdom, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Kunming, and the foothills of Tibet, with a local Filipino boat crew, daringly sailed against the strong currents while being assaulted by aggressive gusts of wind.

The passengers preferred the unshielded upper deck for better ventilation, despite being constantly showered with salty water. Rolling billows surmounted the deck as if they were trying to engulf the boat like a giant whale shark feeding on plankton. The crew tried their best to stay sharp and focused, for every second they were on the verge of being tossed out of the boat. However, putting aside the forces that the rocking of the boat by raging waves caused the voyagers – stimulation that normal urban dwellers could only experience through thrill rides - the not-so-peaceful cruise was blessed with a panoramic view of a clear sky. As the sun set while the boat braved the sea, the bright sky was soon veiled by a star- adorned night. Stars offer guidance to fishermen, one of the perks of night sailing, while for commoners, stargazing on a boat in the wilderness is stunning - the most visually satisfying experience one can get. Yet, that wintry night was no ordinary night. Suddenly, a ‘fireball’ appeared out of nowhere, plunged and vanished into thin air. It was not any normal meteor shower, but a large luminous burning meteor dropping from the sky. Little did the spectators know that this was a ‘warning’ sign for dangers lurking ahead, as they were busy chatting away about the extraordinary astronomical phenomenon they had just witnessed.
The night darkened and the anger of the tides had yet to cease. Under such adverse circumstances, the time to reach the faraway island would be doubled. After discussion, the explorers compromised and decided to first take shelter in a nearby bay. Switching course, the two boat fishing fleet was steadily steering towards the nearest haven. Suddenly, a loud ‘bang’ shook the first ship. The engine whirred and stopped, its noise was replaced by dead silence. The boat had struck a coral reef, or so they first thought. To free the boat from large coral, members of the crew jumped overboard and jolted the boat with great force. Their attempt was in vain. The crew divided into two teams, one pushing at the back of the boat and one pulling the anchor in front, yet the vessel did not bulge a bit. One of the sailors dove into the sea with a waterproof flashlight to inspect the bottom of the boat, only to find that the ocean bed was flat without any coral outcrops or rocks that could have hit the boat - the boat was in fact still floating in the middle of a shallow sea, grounded in a very uncanny manner.
Fortunately for the exploration team, the companion fishing boat came to the rescue. Despite all the commotion, eerily, it had taken them quite a long while for them to realize that the main boat had been grounded. After what felt like forever, with the help of the backup crew, the larger vessel was released from the seabed without getting wrecked. Luckily, no major damage was suffered apart from little cracks on the bottom of the boat and no one was injured. Were the bizarre incidents of ship grounding and the sighting of the fireball a warning from supernatural forces not to continue the voyage ahead? With no second thoughts, the explorers, towed by the accompanying smaller boat, embarked on the return voyage back to their base...
The tale above may sound like one of those myths circulated among the fishing community, only it wasn’t a fairytale, but a first-hand account based on the shortest expedition I’ve ever undertaken with CERS, one that lasted less than 24 hours. The truth is, everyone on board would have their own version of the story, be they the foreign passengers or local Filipinos, the boat captain or sailors, the scientist or filmmaker, the Christian or Tibetan Buddhist. Based on our diverse backgrounds and beliefs, we observed and interpreted the incidents that we experienced together in very distinct and idiosyncratic manners. For example, Jocelin said four fireballs plummeted in front of her eyes when the ship was grounded, while some crew men claimed they saw a headless man sitting at the back of the boat. How we got stuck while remaining buoyant was another enigma that could not be solved; Jocelin and the crew thought that the mastermind might be some supernatural force that prevented us from carrying on the expedition, whereas Dr. Bill maintained that we hit a nearshore reef shown on the chart. We were not able to discern our true location, because the GPS of the captain, How Man and Dr. Bill showed us in three different spots. Jocelin believed that we would never be able to return to the site where we got stranded, almost as if we were in a different dimension under enchantment. Echoes of Tibetan prayers chanted by Drolma our friend from the high Tibetan plateau lingered as Jocelin’s uncle, an expert captain, poured soup into the ocean to pacify the angry spirits. As for me, my focus of attention was neither on how we got stuck in the middle of the ocean nor the fireball sightings, but how differently people reacted to the incident based on their own experiences and beliefs and how they negotiated between different versions of the story.
Saskia and I, with the help of Jocelin, interviewed the fishing crew about the night of the accident after we returned to our base safe and sound. When asked what they believed had caused our boat to run aground, a sailor named Ellen, aged 48, replied that he thought it might be due to the malfunctioning of the GPS so that we hit the shore, or it might also be tricks that spirits played on us to impede our expedition. ‘Chances are fifty-fifty’, he said. Ellen personally could not feel the presence of spirits, but Jocelin and her uncle very much did. Uncle sensed bad omens surrounding us earlier that night, hence he had earnestly tried to persuade us to return even before our boat ran aground. He also told us how traditionally fishermen regarded fireballs as fairies, their gender distinguished by the shape of the fire – fireballs dropping down and leaving a track behind were female fairies, with fire as their long hair, while male fairies appeared in the form of a blast. The one we saw was a female fairy according to this reckoning.
Contemporary sailors like Ellen saw fireballs as natural phenomenon and tended to ignore it, despite that he did mention the reason why he failed to see one that night was because ‘maybe the fireballs are only meant for you to see.’ In contrast, the elder crew members associated fireballs with supernatural forces in a symbolic sense. To them, the appearance of fireballs might not necessarily be a bad sign, the fairies could express goodwill as well, however more than one fireball sighting per night should be considered as fairies tailing the boat, giving warnings to humans not to proceed with their journey. Years ago, when Jocelin’s cousin passed away, Uncle was responsible for shipping his body from Roxas back to their hometown in Cagayan. In the face of adverse weather the original one-day journey took him two days and nights, the crew soaking wet from waves and rain. A lot of fireballs were seen during that trip, flying from both sides, following them back to Cagayan. It was believed that the bloodthirsty fairies knew that there was a dead body on board and would have liked to take more lives. Some give food offerings to spirits to appease them. Younger sailors said their great great grandfathers were very superstitious. They would cook rice and eggs and leave them at home before setting sail as offerings to spirits in exchange for protection. Sailors seldom practice such offerings nowadays.
Being rational, opting for scientific explanations, and being superstitious, believing in spirits and taboos, are contradictory at first glance, but renowned anthropologist Evans-Pritchard asked ‘How does it come about that people capable of logical behavior so often act in a non- logical manner?’ From the perspective of functionalist anthropology, how do fishermen’s taboos and myths come about and what purpose and meaning do they serve? Is there any logical reasoning behind upholding such ‘superstitious’ beliefs? With technological advancement and improved maritime equipment, is religious behavior no longer necessary for fishermen? These are complicated subjects that numerous scholars have spent their lives tackling. I here just briefly shed light on this topic from an anthropological angle.
‘Anxiety-ritual theory’ explains religious behavior, magic and taboos as means to relive man’s anxiety. Malinowski, the father of anthropology, gave an account of the fishing taboos of the Trobriand islanders that became an exemplar of this model. He reported how villagers that made a living
by inner lagoon fishing, a relatively easy and absolutely reliable mode of fishing via poisoning, did not practice any magic at all, as abundant return could be yielded without danger and uncertainty. In contrast, for fishermen who fished on shores of the open sea, comparatively more dangerous and uncertain as the yield varies in accordance with weather and environmental constraints, extensive magical ritual and taboos were undertaken to ensure safety and great yield. In other words, there is a correlation of economic and personal risk with the amount of ritual behavior; when there is higher risk and uncertainty, more ritual behavior will be observed to reduce stress.
Palmer, another anthropologist, was skeptical about this theory and offered an alternative explanation. Palmer argued that religious behaviors can only achieve the purpose of stress-relief if the fishermen truly believe in the efficacy of the rituals and taboos they practice. This is not consistent with his observations of lobstermen in the port of southern Maine where Palmer conducted his fieldwork. Lobstermen filled in a questionnaire on which they were asked if they had knowledge of, observe and believe in certain taboos and rituals. It turns out that some fishermen adhere to particular religious behaviors without believing in them. To resolve such discrepancy, Palmer proposed the ‘cooperation hypothesis.’ According to Palmer, ‘all religious behavior is distinguished by “the communicated acceptance of another’s supernatural” claim, a claim whose accuracy cannot be verified by the senses... Hence by communicating acceptance of a supernatural claim one is communicating a willingness to accept the speaker’s influence skeptically.’ Since acceptance of influence between individuals is essential in cooperative social relationships, practicing religious behavior together is likely to foster positive cooperation among fishermen. Therefore, under this theory, open sea fishermen tend to observe more ritual taboos not because of the inherently higher risks but because a lack of cooperation among the fishing crew would likely lead to disaster. For fishermen that often find themselves in precarious situations in the danger-laden open sea, communicating similar beliefs helps them bond and develop trust, yielding better teamwork in times of adversity.
Religious behaviors, like following ritual taboos or giving offerings, used to be a great part of fishermen’s lives. In contemporary times, however, where sailing knowledge are consolidated not through oral tradition but formal education and training, and where information on weather, maritime geography and maps is becoming more and
more precise, accurate and accessible with the assistance of satellites and GPS, taboos and rituals are gradually dying out. Uncertainty of sailing and fishing, though not completely eradicated, has been reduced significantly with the help of technological advancements. Fishermen rely no more on signs given by fairies representing themselves in the form of fireballs, and they certainly do not try to win favor of sea gods through offerings in return for protection. Depending more on technology and science, belief in such religious behaviors among younger fishermen and sailors has fallen apart and they have started to call these acts and myths superstitious. The religious behaviors have lost their stress-relieving property among the youngsters, who have therefore ceased to perform offerings and rituals. Local taboos and mythologies will be left uninherited.
Nonetheless, from the interviews we saw how these younger fishermen, on the one hand, called these beliefs superstitious, yet on the other, were quite reluctant to completely negate the possibility that the power of such supernatural beings exists, or even might be the cause of our hazardous situation. For Ellen, the odds for both scenarios were equal, and even for the younger sailors who did not belief in fairies or offering rituals, they listened attentively to uncle’s story with intrigued looks on their faces. This middle ground could not be explained by ‘ritual- anxiety theory’ which builds upon the belief in the efficacy of the religious acts, but could be by the ‘cooperation hypothesis’. Circulating myths, complying with taboos and practicing magic are not merely religious acts, but more importantly, are social ones. Through communicating stories and performing rituals together, a special bond is created. In other cases, some might follow under peer or authoritative pressure; if other parties are believers or practitioners of such taboos or magic, they dare not resist even though they are not spiritual themselves. Interestingly, based on the ‘cooperation hypothesis’, Palmer suggested that the skipper or anyone that holds a managerial position, and who thus plays the role of maintaining cooperative relationships under his/her authority should be the one who are reportedly more interested in taboos and myths. In our case, the person-in-charge of the Palawan projects, Jocelin, who oversees and liaises with all the local Filipino workers and boat crews, is in fact the one who takes the fireballs and myths most seriously. Crew members who are willing to accept such taboos and myths, endorsed by the authority, are communicating a willingness to accept the authority’s and the other co-acceptors’ influence, such that they belong.
Taboos and mythologies have social bearings in collaborative relationships, which is crucial among fishermen and sailors. Although people no longer seek mental comfort from or rely
on them for protection, the act of story-telling and taboo- abiding may still be carried on. As for me, the phenomena presents both a chance to think logically and illogically, the former using my intellectual mind, and the latter my emotional and empirical side, which is far more romantic. In the final analysis, I prefer to live more of a romantic life – I simply could not resist the joy that a good fairy story brings. But in all seriousness, I do believe that both of these modes of thought are important to life, and it is though the eternal mind-battle between the logical and the illogical that our experience as human beings becomes so unique and valuable.
After all we had been through, maybe someday, our story of the fireball fairies and the grounded boat will be circulating among local fishermen - it’s not hard to imagine how the fishing crew engaged in this exciting odyssey will vividly depict how we escaped from the hands of the deadly fairies, laying it on thick for the sake of dramatic effect. Who knows, we might end up becoming the unknown protagonists of a fairytale. I would be glad to be a part of this complex social web that everyone plays a part to weave.