Traditional shark mouth totem carved Wap head and four kuurr tips.
Dugong, (dhangal), were traditionally hunted with a wap (harpoons) which were used to capture the dugong from a Nath (hunting platform). The hunting process was steeped in ceremony which included special preparations by the hunter and particular observances by his wife and children; the cutting of the tree (shark tree called baidam pulu) for the making of the harpoon and the singing of the rope attached to the harpoon in order to tire the dugong.
A wap is usually around 3 metres long and is designed to deliver the detachable barbed tip with such force as to drive the barbs deep in the thick hide of the dugong and not pull out under pressure. The Nath was constructed of mangrove poles and twine made from coconut fibre. It was built above the surface of the water, over a section of the sea grass bed where the dugong had fed the previous night. The hunter, who is courageous and highly skilled, takes up his position on the platform in the early evening and waits for the dugong to resume feeding. In the dark of night it was the observation of phosphorescent glow (osulal zugalal) seen in the water created by the dugong as it surfaces to breathe that enabled the hunter to know the exact position of the dugong beneath the Nath. This allowed him to place the tip of his harpoon (kuurr – traditionally made of hardwood from the baidam tulu tree but since early contact made from iron & particularly old metal files) in exactly the right spot in the back (guraid) of the dugong to ensure it did not escape capture.
Dugong hunting was extremely perilous. The hunter leapt from the platform, thrusting his harpoon in to the dugong and was towed through the water like a human buoy while holding on to the rope (amu) attached to the tip of the harpoon, waiting for the dugong to tire. As the hunter was pulled through the water at speeds of up to six knots, he would periodically call out to the other hunters who would row after him in their canoe. The hunter had to be extremely careful not to get entangled in the rope as the consequences of this were often fatal. Also the blood trail attracted shark & barracuda. There were other methods used for the final capture of the dugong when the Nath was located some distance from the shore. A bulky paper bark buoy was employed to act as a sea anchor rather than the hunter hanging on to the rope. Following this in a paddled canoe at night was not for the faint hearted. Hunting dugong from the Nath ceased in the late 1940s.
A rare superb traditional Torres Strait dugong hunting Wap in fine condition. Length: 72cm (28.4 inches).