Face Time with Cathy’s Eels
By Don Silcock
Possibly not everybody’s idea of fun, but for me it was a most unusual and entertaining way to spend an afternoon – upfront and personal with a significant number of large and hungry fresh water eels.
“Cathy” is Cathy Hiob, a former Air Nuigini air hostess who has retired back to her village of Laraibina, some 90 km from Kavieng, down the east coast of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea.
22 years of flying with the national airline has provide Cathy with a seemingly endless string of one-liners, which she really seems to relish using with the many visitors who come to see her flock of fresh-water eels.
In fact, you get the distinct feeling that you are part of a very well-rehearsed routine, as you sit chatting with her in the shade of one of the many trees in the village. But, as amusing as the banter is with this feisty lady with the shock of white hair, the one-liners are just the warm-up act for the star attraction.
For in the village stream are some 10-12 large fresh-water eels and Cathy, together with her trusty assistant, has trained them on a diet of Besta tinned mackerel to appear on demand when they hear the feeding pot being rattled.
The training has worked extremely well – too well in fact, as I subsequently learned when the last tin of Besta had gone and the eels disappeared as quickly as they had appeared.
Unfortunately this occurred just as I was getting the hang of being surrounded by large slivering eels, each equipped with an impressive set of teeth.
The usual routine is to stand in the stream and let the eels swim around your feet as Cathy’s assistant doles out the Besta, but I really wanted to get a close-up underwater shot of the eels feeding, so total immersion therapy seemed to be the be the way to go.
I carefully positioned myself at the feet of Cathy’s assistant, shivering slightly in the cold fresh water and feeling strangely vulnerable…
The first tin of Besta was opened and the feeding pot suitably rattled and within seconds I was surrounded by what appeared to be a seething mass of eel flesh!
Clearly caught up in the overall excitement of the moment, Cathy’s assistant opened tin after tin in rapid succession, as the eels gorged on the mackerel. Then, just as I felt I was getting the hang of this veritable feeding frenzy the last tin was gone and the eels disappeared as quickly as they had appeared!
We tried all sorts to bring them back, even offering our lunch of fresh tuna to tempt them to the camera dome, but all to no avail as the Besta appears to be the only thing that will do it for them!
So… on my next trip to New Ireland and thanks to the usual superb support of Dietmar and Angie Amon of Lissenung Island Resort, we embarked from Kavieng with a case and a half of Besta’s very best – enough for at least two eel banquets!
Cathy was at the exuberant best when we arrived and we sat with her under the tree for the obligatory chat and one-liners – no repeats I noticed…
Then after detailed instructions regarding the timing and rate of dispersal of the Besta were carefully explained to Cathy’s assistant, I positioned myself amongst the eager eels and the feeding began.
The phrase “herding cats” came to mind as I tried very hard to get a good image as the eels slithered in and out of the viewfinder and lumps of mackerel were dispersed and consumed at an alarming rate!
All in all, quite an usual and very interesting way to spend the last day of your trip to Kavieng and let that nitrogen return to where it came from.
Don is a Bali based photojournalist and underwater photographer who travels extensively in South-East Asia and China.
You can read more about Papua New Guinea, and many other places, on his website http://www.indopacificimages.com