#1080. The Tale Of 2 Sisters

By Ian Varkevisser | Travel Photography

Jan 12

Weighing in at over a ton each and having been photographed well over a million times, sisters Rio and Senio Rita are our two local superstars.

Gaining a subsistence living from the sea by netting fish from shore-based boats is an age-old manner of earning a living. The two colourful sisters have been the backbone of “Trek” fishing ( seine netting ) in our valley and have served generations of local fishermen and their families.

It’s a hard life that often starts before dawn when nets and meticulously wound coils of ropes are carefully packed into the boats preparing them for a quick response to the lookout’s signal.

From the mountain above the bay an ‘uitkyker’ ( lookout ) or ‘wagter’ ( one who waits) holds station scanning the ocean.

Blue water or sometimes light yellow, indicates harders; elf ( yellowtail ) give a bluish tinge; or snoek ( a long thin species of snake mackerel ).  A dark colour shows a compact shoal and an experienced fisherman could estimate the number of fish. In days gone by the lookouts on the mountain would signal the presence of a shoal by sound a snoek horn.

The boat with the net piled in readiness in the stern , sets out from the shore with one end of the net secured to the shore by a rope manned by all available volunteers, sometimes even including members of the passing public.  The net is paid out over the stern and the boat maneuvers in a circle in accordance with instructions signaled from the look-out post. In days gone by this would have been accomplished by the lookouts waving flags. With the advent of modern technology this now occurs via two way radios or cellphones.

The other end of the net also has a hauling rope which is brought ashore.  The net is pulled in and the enclosed fish are thus hauled to the shore.

It is a hard and dangerous life offering only a precarious existence  that involves much heavy labour, rowing out through the breakers, followed by the tedious hand hauling of the net to the beach, with the men trudging backwards in a tug-of-war exercise, until the cod-end of the line comes out of the water and the catch can be assessed. 

Some days the ocean is bountiful offering up multiple catches of tons of fish. On other occasions efforts are all in vain , like the day 8 mantra rays with 3 metre wingspans were all that ended up in the nets.

On others days the ocean throws in a bronze whaler shark or two to complicate matters. By catch of this nature is returned to the sea wherever possible.

There seems to be no specific ‘Cape’ design boat.  Tradition has prevailed with changes being made as the conditions warranted them.  Over time the sea eliminated the bad points and gradually the boats began to resemble each other in appearance and handling qualities.  They all conform to local conditions – are easy to row, sail fast, of a strong construction, a good surf boat, but light enough to handle up the beach in the strong south-east winds of the False Bay area.  This is accomplished by passing stout poles through rope strops at the bow and stern; these are then hoisted on to the shoulders of as many as 16 men. 

The boats have a broad beam for stability; were short-ended with little or no overhang at bow or stern so that it can negotiate steep, short seas and surf; a broad transom for load carrying and work space.  The length varies from 5m to 8m and the beam from 1,6m to 2m.  They are pulled by 4 to 5 oars with a rudder steering for off-shore work although the helmsman uses a steering oar or ‘sweep’ through the surf.  On the whole, the boats did not have to do anything well, but, what is more important, they did not have to do anything badly; they are likeable and well-behaved sea boats with no dangerous habits.


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  • Christopher says:

    Such an interesting post, with great images. I love the rich colours.

    • Ian Varkevisser says:

      Thank you Christopher, contrary to a lot of the northern hemisphere, down here in the far south we have big skies and harsh sunlight which often adds to contrast and saturation of colour ( rich ). Whilst some of my critics often use the phrase ‘colour is so vulgar’ 🙂 we learn to live with it and embrace it.

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    As you can see from Ian’s photos, these are fisherman who care about the ocean, and about the future of fishing.
    “Slow Food” – the world wide organisation formed in Italy, to promote better standards throughout the whole “food” industry – has this to say about their fishing methods:
    “…. haul seining, which include[s] sorting the fish live, by hand, while they are still in the water . . .[gives] a virtually zero [bycatch, and fishing reports] routinely classify the commercial fish species caught . . . as totally sustainable. . . .”
    Other methods of “net fishing” cause terrible damage to species that aren’t the target of the catch.

    Ignoring my sensitivities on the subject, and getting back to the subject of Ian’s post. The thing about the sea is that it’s never “the same”. You can return to the same place, day after day, and always see “difference”. So whether these boats have been photographed a million times is irrelevant – each image is unique – nothing will be repetitive.

    And like sunrises and sunsets, the sea teaches us to “see”. Which is absolutely basic to our profession, or our hobby. Just as “light” is. Between them, they are the pegs on which we hang our craft.

    What we “see”, then, is down to personal choice. Mired in personal taste, personal experience, personal thought and imagination.

    And here we have some of the finest! A complete “tour” of a local industry. Carefully pieced together, for our pleasure and our enlightenment.

    • Ian Varkevisser says:

      Hi JP, you read the industry correctly and sum up the situation well. Very often on anti social media these hard working low impact fishermen come under fire from the woke cancel brigade, unfairly in my opinion too.

      It has been said ones photography is unique – for the very reason that it is seen from ones own perspective – as you clearly pointed out.

      Just for the record this series of images is a summary of an accumulation of images over around 4 years.

      • jean pierre guaron says:

        LMAO – ‘”an accumulation of images over around 4 years”!

        I seem to suffer from similar problems, Ian – I have multiple “projects” on the go, at the same time, but ALL of them seem to go on for years, before I am happy with the final cut.

        Re-reading what I said earlier, I see my feeble attempts to adhere to the “rules” on making & modifying quotes have obscured the true meaning.

        It was meant to say that – unlike other netting methods – haul seining with hand sorting gives a virtually zero “bycatch”. “Bycatch” is fish that are trapped, but unwanted, and end up being discarded.

        (Some methods have a horrendous bycatch, anything up to 80 or 90% of the fish trapped in the nets are simply discarded, and those methods have a devastating impact on fishery numbers).

        • Ian Varkevisser says:

          It just so happens I picked images which span that period, not a specific project I have been working on in this instance, to convey different light and therefore different moods of their activity.

  • JohnW says:

    Great story and images Ian. The images are all excellent and contribute to the story but the shot through the nets and the last image are my favourites. Nice done Sir.

  • Martin says:

    Great photographs and story!

  • rossG says:

    Great set of images and back story Ian.

    • Ian Varkevisser says:

      Hi Ross, thanks boet , time for you to put together a compilation of your work for submission , don’t be shy.

  • PaulB says:


    A great story and images to tell it. Sometimes you need to spend the time to experience the story before you can do it justice. Nicely done.


    • Ian Varkevisser says:


      Thank you for that insightful comment , I never thought about it that way when deciding to put together this blog.

  • philberphoto says:

    When a storyteller meets a photographer and a subject…. I could feel the salty air, the slight bite of the seawater, the smell of the grilled fish, hear the shouts over the rustle of the groundswell. Who said travel was prevented by the virus? Because, thanks to you, I just travelled at lightspeed, and you delivered this with a rare combination of talent to tell the story and humility not to make it about you and your prowess, but about your subject. Brilliant!

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