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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

Launching a fishing boat into the surf

Launching a fishing boat into the surf

Year: 2009, Month: December

India > Kerala > Kovalam

As mentioned in the October 2009 page of this 'Photo of the Month' series, I have been staying for a few months in Kovalam, in the state of Kerala, in the very south of my favorite country, India. I spent a lot of time working on my portfolio of photographs prior to submission to the 'Lonely Planet Images' online travel photograph library (2013 note: LPI now acquired by Getty Images), but as a dedicated travel photographer, I could never resist going out with my cameras to take more. Kovalam is an ideal location for the travel photographer: like most of India, it provides many opportunities for colourful images in the vibrant atmosphere of Kerala and the Backwaters.

Being in one place for a time provides a totally different experience from the usual one, where I am travelling on tight deadlines, never enough time to wander about, and having to take images as they appear. The light is not always ideal, and there might be only one opportunity to visit a particular site or location. This time, it was very different. I had the opportunity to observe the life of the fishermen who also live at Kovalam, watch what they do from day to day, see how their work is changed by the ever-varying weather, and then when everything is just right, take the photos that I needed. This slow approach really pays dividends, and the results speak for themselves.

The image for this 'Photo of the Month' is one of my favourites: a powerful composition that readily depicts the strain and effort of this group of Keralite fishermen as they struggle to man-handle their wooden fishing boat into the surf, through the breakers, and out to sea, where they can set their nets for the next attempt at fishing in these difficult waters. Much of the time, this effort is all in vain, whilst other times, there are so many fishh that the net is practically bursting at the seams. But not often - I think I saw a catch as big as that just twice in four months.

Still, they have to put the nets before they know what nature will provide for them this time. The procedure is basically this: The boat goes out into the bay, loaded with the fishing nets and the 2 long ropes, one attached to each end. The net is dropped at a likely spot, and the ropes are brought back to the beach. Two groups of men, one for each rope, then haul the net in - a process that can take at least 30 minutes. When the net nears the shallows, some men will wade out into the water in an effort to stop any fish escaping from the front. Once on the beach, the net is then carefully emptied of all it contains. Jelly fish, of which there are generally a lot, are either thrown back or buried in holes on the beach. The fish are sorted, and the best are sent to market, or to the local restaurants. The really small 'fry' are sold to the poor, or if there are too many, buried in more holes in the beach. It surprised me a lot to see this happen, as it not only seems such a waste of life and resources, but not very sustainable, either. The nets in use have very small mesh-size, so they catch absolutely everything. It would seem to me that if you let the smallest, unwanted fish go, they would then grow to be bigger fish, that you do want. Is there a flaw in this argument?? As mentioned, the catch sizes were rarely large - I would have thought that the fishermen needed all the help they could get.

From time to time, I would be woken at first light by a loud bang. At other times, whilst having breakfast at the Swiss Cafe, which overlooks Lighthouse Beach, I would again hear a loud bang, and generally see a small column of spray rise into the air from behind the rock promontory. These are caused by dynamite fishing - a wasteful and destructive practice that bursts the swim bladders of fish in the pressure wave of the dynamite exploding, causing them to float to the surface, where they can be scooped out of the water by men and boys in small boats. Unfortunately, dynamite fishing damages the environment as well. The authorities turn a blind eye to this practice, though every knows it goes on. Perhaps one day a tourist will be hurt, and then questions will really be asked. Until then, probably nothing will happen.

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