Sri Lanka; The Fishermen of Talalla

April 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Featured, Travel & Adventures


Talalla in south west Sri Lanka. Photo: Ami Elsius


Imagine a place where time holds it’s breath and the hustle and bustle of modern civilisation seems eons away: A quiet place, peaceful and tranquil far away from stress, noise, traffic, news and information bombardment. Imagine a tropical paradise: clear turquoise blue waters, an almost deserted golden beach lined with swaying coconut palms and huge banyan trees. Giant sea turtles lay their eggs at night and the king fisher skilfully catches crabs during the day. Random cows stroll aimlessly down the beach as shiny white cranes catch a free ride on their backs, hoping to get a mouthful of insects on the way. An iguana takes an afternoon stroll while squirrels and monkeys watch from the trees.


Cow taking a stroll down the beach. Photo: Ami Elsius


Here you will find breathtaking beauty in hues ranging from a pale Cerulean to deeper Prussian blue, framed with fresh greens and golden sandy tones, highlighted by deep red hibiscuses, purple and magenta coloured bougainvillea and the white and yellow so sensually scented frangipani.


All accompanied by the most exquisite tropical symphony consisting of various colourful birds and insects, the gentle breeze caressing the treetops and rolling waves breaking in perfect tubes. The sky is clear, sun high in the sky and no one to be seen.

This could very well be the deserted paradise beach of your dreams…for a few hours a day, before the scheduled scene change.


Going out for the first catch of the day. Photo: Ami Elsius

In the early morning hours or in the late afternoon the setting changes tremendously; a new scene is rolled in for another story. This story is as old as mankind itself and has had little variation over the past centuries. It is the band of 20 fishermen that work here everyday the same way their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers did before them; it’s a story of patience, strength, endurance, trust and teamwork.




Looking for some movement in the water, to indicate where to lay the net. Photo: Ami Elsius


A nearly toothless man with a body that looks weak and fragile, gazes out over the ocean; skilfully scanning the surface for jumping fish. Once the fish shoal is spotted, a group of 6-10 fishermen drags a very narrow 2000kg canoe out in the waves and start rowing her out. No motor, no sail, just a wooden stabilizer on one side. The canoe is not made to sit in; you either sit on top of the bars that hold the stabilizer in place or stand up, but watch where you put your feet; a 700 metre net is nested in the belly of the canoe.


You have to be very quick and alert to not get tangled in the 700meter net, as it's swiftly laid out in a big half circle around the shoal. Photo: Ami Elsius


It wasn't entirely easy to stay out of the way, keep the camera safe and not fall overboard. Photo: Ami Elsius


Splashing water, moving boat, oars in all directions, 8 men moving around and a 700m net and I with the camera, trying to booth stay out of the way and get some good angles for photos.....all together in this narrow boat. Photo: Ami Elsius


The net is swiftly laid in a big half circle around the shoal before the boat returns to the shore, surfing in on the waves. People on the shore help to drag the heavy boat back up on the sand while others start pulling the net. Two groups team up in a tug of war with the ocean, pulling on the ends of the net. Passing villagers of all ages help the team of 20 in their 2-3 times daily struggle. What starts out as a huge half circle with the two teams far apart eventually ends up, with a lot of pulling and walking, on the beach and out in the waves, as a narrow U. The fish get channelled in to a snout and pulled up on the beach.

Some days the net is full but far to often the net is empty or sparsely scattered with fish. You can see the big trawlers on the horizon that are out for months on end, like giant vacuum cleaners pulling up every shoal they can see on their echo-sounder. Small-scale manual fishing has and is increasingly becoming harder to survive on.


With the big trawlers going up and down the coast like a giant vacum cleaners, it's not much fish left for the hard working locals. Photo: Ami Elsius


As soon as the net in its entirety is up on the beach, the snout part where the fish have been caught is separated from the rest of the net.  The 700m fishing net is spread out on the beach in a huge zigzag pattern and is scanned for tears.  Mending takes place on the spot if needed and this precious tool is neatly folded and stored on the boat again after some drying time.


The net is checked for holes after every use. Photo: Ami Elsius


The net is layed out in a big zig zag on the pattern to dry. Photo: Ami Elsius


The nets are treated with outmost care and attention. Photo: Ami Elsius


I love looking at the patterns that the nets make in the sand. Photo: Ami Elsius


The fish is sold right on the beach, as soon as it gets out of the water. I love looking at the patterns that the nets make in the sand. Photo: Ami Elsius


Two wooden oars are pushed into the sand, handle down and a third oar is tied in between them creating a big H. A balance is tied to the crossing oar and a locally made rattan basket full of fish is hooked on to the scale.


A scale is made on the spot with two oars and a rope. I love looking at the patterns that the nets make in the sand. Photo: Ami Elsius





Good-sized tasty fish is sold for about 200 rupees per kg (slightly over 1 euro) just minutes after its been pulled out of the sea. The owner of the boat takes half the money and the rest is evenly shared with the other 19 fishermen. They alternate between 5 different boats, each with it’s own net.



Even though the daily rowing, dragging of the boat and pulling of the net is physically challenging even for the fittest of men, you will find old bony men and young boys alongside broad shouldered men with big bellies.  Many need to supplement their catch by solo trips in smaller canoes, weighing 500 kg. A hand held fishing line, some cut squid pieces, a bottle of water and a home made lantern looking like a coffeepot for late homecomings is their only gear. It’s hard work with a calm sea, but during the monsoon season the ocean gets rough and the rowing and tugging becomes totally exhausting.


Many need to supplement their catch by solo trips in smaller canoes, weighing 500 kg. Photo: Ami Elsius


The fishing village was badly affected by the 2004 tsunami: all buildings were greatly damaged or totally washed away, and 25 people died, mainly women and children. One of the fishermen lost his wife and 3 children.


From dead calm to full blown tsunami; the sea has as many faces as man does. Photo: Ami Elsius


These men know that the ocean gives as well as takes life; sometimes it is generous with its fruits and other times it leaves you empty handed. Sometimes it’s still like a mirror, other times rough as hell…just like life. Even though it is hard to make ends meet, none of the fishermen would care to change their profession. It’s in their genes, it’s who they are, it’s their heritage, and hopefully their future. Humility, humbleness, acceptance, gratitude, hope and genuine team spirit are all qualities that the fishermen of Talalla possess. They are dedicated and proud family fathers, reliable friends, hard working and skilful, resilient and genuine men.


Theres always time for some quiet meditaion. Photo: Ami Elsius


More and more of us hit the wall, burn out, and suffer from depression, panic anxiety, a mind that is never quiet and a body that doesn’t know how to fully relax. As the whole world is speeding up and joining the information age it is becoming increasingly important to preserve pristine communities and unspoiled nature.


Everything here circulates around the boats, the beach, the ocean...and a great sense of community and team spirit. Photo: Ami Elsius


We all need to keep our eyes open, and take responsibility for our actions, just as much when we are travelling. Something seemingly trivial to you can be the snowball that caused the avalanche in a new place. If you want to appreciate your journey and genuinely help minimize your footprints along your travels, the best is to donate money to a village conservation fund or a reputable aid organisation. You can make all the difference!


Pristine communities and unspoiled nature are hard to come by these days. Photo: Ami Elsius