How a Short Cruise in Kochi Backwaters Turned into a Lesson in Ornithology and Ecology
The wide network of backwaters that are spread across the coastal circuit of Kerala in India has become an integral part of the tourism in Kerala so much so that no visit to Kerala is considered complete without going on a backwater cruise. Though we always tend to go off the beaten track during our travels, we change our preferences while at Fort Kochi to go on a cruise in Kochi backwaters like the regular tourists do. It is not our first tryst with backwaters in Kerala for we have spent time in the crowded Alleppey backwaters a couple of years back and have also explored the lesser known backwaters of the Valiaparamba in North Kerala a couple of months back. With not much anticipation, we hire a boat for a backwater cruise in the Kundannur area in Kochi. Since it is a weekday, there are not many visitors at the jetty. It is quarter past 5 in the evening as we step into the boat that is allotted to us. we are welcome by high rise concrete structures of hotels and apartments towering high from beneath the coconut groves lining the backwaters on either side.
The non-operational Chinese fishing net in the backwaters
“Look, that is cricketer Srishanth’s home” the boat driver exclaims with a twinkle in his eye pointing to one of the villas on the waterfront. Quite surprised by our disinterest in taking photographs of the home, he steers the boat further towards a few makeshift shacks made for farming fish and prawns on the backwater banks. A non-operational Chinese fishing net stands next to the fish farms. From the overgrowth of weeds around it, It is evident that the net is no longer in use and is probably kept there for the tourists. However, it does make for a great sight with the backdrop of the coconut trees. Moving further, we see more fishing nets standing idle. The area was probably a fishing village a couple of years back. But it seems like the village has made way for rapid urbanization and all we can see are a few multi-storeyed apartments and posh hotels on the banks of the backwaters. The fishing nets are probably retained as vestiges from the past for aesthetic reasons.
A little further into the backwater, the driver suddenly kills the engine bringing the boat to a complete still. With a whisper, he points to a Kingfisher on a stump nearby. That marks the beginning of our bird watching experience on Kochi backwaters. As we steer further in the backwaters, the driver shows us more birds with great enthusiasm. There are hundreds of herons and egrets spread all along the backwaters nibbling on the aquatic creatures. A couple of brahmin kites plunge occasionally into the water to catch fish.
Moving further, we see numerous black cormorants perched on the stilts waiting for prey. A couple of them spread their wings wide for drying. The driver tells us that the cormorants’ feathers are not waterproof and hence after every couple of dives in water, they spread out their wings for drying. He also mentions that each of the cormorants can feed on about 7 kg of fish every day. Though we do not believe the latter fact, we listen to him with attention as he tells us more about the birds.
The driver kills the engine once again to stop the boat, this time to show us a couple of darters. They are also called as snake birds by the locals because of the long snake-like neck they have. He then takes us to a few islands and marshlands covered by mangroves. The water hyacinth plants float gracefully in the ripples of the water. The purple flowers of the plants look pretty as they reflect in the water. However, our fascination with the flowers stays only till we see that the weed has covered a huge stretch of the backwaters amidst the mangroves. It looks alarming that the weed has encroached such a huge surface area. When we ask the driver if no action is taken to deweed, he brushes it off stating that it is tough to avoid the plant which grows at an alarming rate and since not much fishing happens in that part of the backwaters, no attention is given to it. The huge amount of effluent waste that flows into the backwaters every day has probably resulted in the rapid growth of the weed. We discuss how the water hyacinth can deplete oxygen in the water leading to the death of aquatic life- a detail we had read during our school days.
The overgrown water hyacinth weed encroaching the vast expanse of backwaters surrounding the mangroves.
We turn around our boat for the return and see a fisherman trying to sort his net. It appears that the hyacinth plants have damaged the net when he spread it out to catch fish. As we try to approach his boat, he signals us to move on and not to get close as he fears that the engine sound might drive the fish away. There is complete silence in the boat as we steer back towards the jetty. We wonder if there is really not much harm caused by the weed or it is just that the locals have turned a blind eye towards the problem.
Traditional fishing in Kochi Backwaters