The Journey Commences

Our journey commenced on 28 May 2019 from Cantonment Railway Station, Bengaluru on the Kochuveli Express bound for the quaint town of Alleppey (Alappuzah) located on the edge of Vembanad Lake in Kerala. Thankfully, our seats were confirmed last minute and we did not have to struggle with sharing berths on the thirteen hour journey to God’s Own Country.
Alleppey was charmingly Keralite. Located on the banks of India’s longest lake system, the town has many peaceful backwaters and canals winding through its streets. One finds oneself on bridges every few meters as yet another canal crosses beneath the road. The streets are small and shaded by coconut palms, and street stalls boast a colourful array of fruits and vegetables. A particular favourite of mine were the stalls selling freshly-pickled vegetables (below right) and spicy buttermilk, a welcome treat in the heat of the afternoon.




Return to the Coast

A coastal kid myself, I love returning to the ocean and the lure of the Malabar coast was too much to resist. Upon reaching Alleppey, we changed into “beach wear” and made our way down the winding streets to the beach. The smell of the ocean hit us long before we could see the steel blue water and the foaming waves.

Alleppey beach was quite crowded considering the time of day. The waves were fantastic, and the water was refreshingly cool at eleven in the morning (a terrible time to go to the beach, by all standards). It was also a wonderful way to relax and get in the Kerala spirit before the rigors of fieldwork kicked in.




Dawn on Vembanad Lake

As the sun rose over the lake, the waters dissolved into a shimmering mass of precious multi-carat gold. Sunbeams danced over the ripples and lonely boat drifted over the shimmering golden waves (P.C. Nobin RM). We were elated to witness such a gorgeous display of light and colour. The water was cool to the touch and the wind played lightly with my hair as the boat set off into Vembanad Lake.




Of Fish and Fishing Techniques


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Fishermen commonly use cast nets, which are circular nets with small weights distributed around the edges. Tossing the net into the water is in itself an art. The net is caught, folded, and spun out to land in a neat circle in the water. It is commonly used to catch small bait or forage fish and work best in water no deeper than their radius, although we saw cast nets being used consistently throughout Vembanad Lake.
Chinese fishing nets (Cheena vala) are a type of stationary lift net commonly used in Kochi and Kollum in Kerala. They are also known as “shore operated lift nets” and span over 20 m across. Each structure is 10 m in height and has a metal cantilever with a rigged outstretched net spread out over the water with stones placed at the edges to weigh the net down during its descent. These nets lined the backwaters and we passed a few in operation by locals. It takes anywhere from one to six fishermen to operate one of the nets, depending on the size of the catch and the weather conditions.
Scoop nets (also known as hand nets) have a net or mesh basket held open by a hoop and attached to a long handle. These nets are easy enough for even an amateur fisher to use and are primarily utilized to scoop up fish near the water surface. We were taught to use a scoop net to sample fish. A main plus point of scoop nets is that they are not destructive and do not kill the fish, making them ideal for mark-and-recapture or aquarium studies.


Of Fish and Friendships

Perhaps what made this adventure the most enjoyable was the company of my colleagues and friends from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). The sense of comradeship, the laughter, the constant knowledge transfer, and the support that our team of wannabe fishers gave each other made the experience all the more enriching and fun. As a scientist, I have come to value a great field team as a component that can make or break your fieldwork experience. I have had teams of unmotivated and dour individuals and come back from field relieved to be back in the city. But this time, my colleagues made the experience a beautiful first time doing fieldwork in Kerala. And so, I must put up some of the more amusing photographs from our adventures down in God’s Own Country:


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Bonus: A Bahubali Experience

As a bonus, we even got to see the Athirappilly Falls in Chalakudy taluk near Thrissur, where scenes from the hit film Bahubali were filmed! While many of the dance sequences featuring the waterfalls in the movie were filmed using a greenscreen, some key scenes actually featured these frothing waterfalls. Importantly (from an ecology standpoint), the falls create a very unique riparian ecosystem and the forest around the falls is the second-most biodiverse region in Kerala.
Although it was the dry season, the falls were still powerful and awe-inspiring, especially when you trekked to the base of the falls and looked up at their might. This is Kerala’s tallest waterfall, standing at an impressive 80 ft tall. It is aptly nicknamed “the Niagara of India.” 
And of course, I have to sign off by posing cheesily beneath a waterfall. After all, this entire fieldwork visit was all about exploring and learning about life in and around water!


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