It’s a hot and humid Sunday afternoon in the tail end of September. The typical Malaysian weather is compounded by the fact that we’re sitting in a yacht, bobbing miles off the coast of Kuala Rompin, in the waters of the South China Sea.
Kuala Rompin seems like any regular quiet seaside town, but sport fishermen know it’s one of the best places to land a catch of a lifetime. Visitors access the town by road, a little over three hours’ drive from Kuala Lumpur, located in Pahang state on the southeast coast of peninsular Malaysia.
We’re not the only vessel out to sea today as we spot several boats around us. Despite being in all shapes and sizes, there is a distinct similarity among them – the sight of fishing rods with lines cast into the waters below. They’re angling for the same thing, a precious bite from a sailfish, which Kuala Rompin’s seas are famous for.
“A lot of people don’t know this but Kuala Rompin is arguably one of the top five hotspots in the world when it comes to sailfishing, “explains Ernest Ong, owner of Sea Urchin, the luxurious yacht we’re on. The Sea Urchin is a liveaboard vessel that plies Kuala Rompin’s seas, ferrying and hosting avid fishermen who have travelled far and wide to these waters.
A Sea Of Sailfish
According to Ernest, the seas around these parts are home to one of the largest aggregation of sailfish found anywhere in the world. Every year around September, these waters become the playground for the region’s best fishermen who turn up to compete in the Royal Pahang Billfish International Challenge, to fish for these magnificent creatures.
“We have a few boats out fishing today,” points out Ernest. “But during the competition, we had over 40 boats heading out from Kuala Rompin.” The fishing competition is important to not only promote tourism but to ensure a sustainable economy for the townspeople of Kuala Rompin. As such, all sport fishing in these waters is strictly for catch and release.
“The only thing we get to keep are the photos and the memories,” stresses Ernest. “Once we capture the fish, we unhook it, snap a photo and it’s returned to the sea before it experiences exhaustion or injury. The conservative efforts to ensure the survivability of the species have paid off, as the area is now a prominent and thriving sailfish hotspot.”
The act has paid dividends as we spot several sailfish breach the surface as we make our way to a fishing area. Ernest reveals that it’s not uncommon to hook up to several sailfish in a day.
Good Things Come To Those Who Bait
Although these seas have a healthy number of sailfish, tracking them is largely down to technology. Like most fishing vessels that ply their trade out of Kuala Rompin, the Sea Urchin is equipped with a fish finder to help locate sailfish. Captain Radin, the man helming the vessel, also explains that sometimes the best tell is to look at the swarm of birds in the area.
“The moment you see several swooping down to the water, there’s a good chance that there’s a sailfish there,” he explains. “The sailfish chase swarms of little fish to feed, which sends them fishing upward, allowing the birds to fly down to capture them as well. It’s basically a natural team effort.”
As soon as the fish finder sends out a ping, Captain Radin brings the vessel to a halt, and the fishing starts. Deckhands begin baiting hooks with baitfish caught earlier and casting them out to sea with the aid of little balloons that act like buoys.
“The balloons are markers, allowing us to see where the baitfish swims to and where our lines are,” explains our captain. Kuala Rompin’s reputation as a sailfish hotspot is proven as one of the lines gets snapped up within minutes. “Fish on!” yells the deckhand. He’s convinced that we’ve hooked a sailfish, and he passes the rod over for the arduous task of reeling the fish in.
The Thrill Of The Battle
It takes minutes for us to come to grips with what’s at the end of the line. With the sailfish breaching the surface, it’s clear that it’s a decent-sized creature. The deckhand instinctively springs into action, fetching a waist harness while Captain Radin expertly manoeuvres the vessel to ensure the line doesn’t get snagged or cut.
With the deckhand providing guidance, the task of bringing the fish in begins. We pull, bending the rod and tightening the line before giving it some slack to slowly reel in the fish. The fight takes 30 minutes, with our backs and arms feeling worse for wear but the excitement not waning.
Eventually the fish gives in. One of the seasoned deckhands masterfully unhooks the fish and lifts it into the boat for the momentous photo. It’s a five-footer, which undoubtedly makes for an Instagrammable picture. Cameras snap away for only a few seconds before the fish is returned to the sea, where it will live on to be caught and be a part of someone else’s memory of a lifetime.
By the end of the day, we hook seven fish and land four, proving what anglers and fishermen have known about Kuala Rompin all these years.
After The Fishing Is Done
As the lines are reeled in, Captain Radin sets a course for Pulau Tulai. This protected marine park is to be our home for the night before our journey back to Kuala Rompin, and it’s part of the overall experience provided by Ernest and his crew, operating as sportfishin.asia.
“We want to provide not just a fishing experience but also a leisurely escape for all our guests – even those who don’t fish!” jokes Ernest. Part of the beauty of the Sea Urchin is that it provides the creature comforts we’ve grown accustomed to on land, such as hot showers, air-conditioning and cosy beds. “We want to deliver an elevated experience for all our guests, whether it is fishing or just an excursion out to sea,” he says.
Certainly, the Sea Urchin with its well-appointed cabins and facilities is perfect for an adventure, which is why Ernest invested in the vessel in the first place. “We started out two years ago and it was born out of personal interests,” he explains. “I like fishing and saw the potential of providing a service to help boost the sport fishing industry here in Kuala Rompin.”
Business is booming as the Sea Urchin is regularly booked for private excursions. “Our main clientele is mostly European and Japanese, and it costs about RM28,000 (USD6,610) for a three-day, two-night excursion for six. For that, they get the whole yacht, the crew and meals, and we hope, a truly unbelievable fishing experience.”
We set up anchor in one of Pulau Tulai’s coves, alongside traditional fishing boats that have also taken shelter from the open sea. Guests can snorkel in the pristine waters around this uninhabited paradise or just sit on deck and admire the view. As the sun sets, the Sea Urchin’s cook fires up the outdoor barbecue for a well-earned dinner.
The evening ends with revelry and grilled seafood and meat. Stories of the day’s adventure are exchanged over good food, drink and company, as guests and crew recount their momentous catches and mull over the ones that got away. The conversations go on long into the night, fuelled by the promise that tomorrow will bring a bigger catch or a sailfish that proves most difficult to land. Those, after all, make for the best fishing stories.