In Kochi, all roads currently lead to Kumbalangi. The postcard-pretty fishing village, about 15 kilometers from Ernakulam, held a nature neon party. The sprawling shrimp farms along the backwaters shimmered in bioluminescence, a phenomenon that makes them sparkle electric blues and fluorescent greens at night.
It’s 11pm in Chellanam, another fishing village near Kumbalangi, and it’s teeming with people armed with long sticks and mobile phones. Some disrupt the water’s surface with sticks, others splash around in the water, and some even dive in, leaving a trail of glowing waves behind them as they capture them on camera for their Instagram feeds.
The phenomenon, known in Malayalam as ‘kavaru’, has been ongoing for a few weeks, making for a busy period in Kumbalangi and surrounding regions, with people from across Kerala and beyond flocking to see the glowing waters. Ask for directions once you reach Kumbalangi and people will immediately ask, “Will you see them? kavaru?”
Bioluminescence at Kumbalangi | Photo credit: Vivek Udaya
Popularized by Instagrammers, crowds have increased this year, locals say – with some putting the unofficial attendance at five lakh. One of the greatest hits in Malayalam cinema, Colorful nights (2019), showing the bioluminescent water also contributed to this sudden excitement.
However, it is not uncommon for the locals. “We’ve seen that in all our growing years. When we go out on the water at night in the land boat and cast out the nets in the summer, the water lights up from within as if there were a hundred lightbulbs in it. Remember this scene from Life of Pi: Shipwreck with Tiger ? It was very similar,” says Jayaraj NM, who runs a small business and lives on Kareethara Island, which has only about nine houses.
“Usually the bioluminescence disappears with the first rain of the season. We didn’t have any summer showers this year, so maybe that’s why we’re still seeing it,” he adds.
According to an official at Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Kochi, the phenomenon is caused by dinoflagellate algae ( High school sp.) that have luminescent properties. Any movement on the water surface – waves, a sudden surf, swimming fish or a disturbance on the water surface – can trigger the luminescence.
A combination of environmental factors causes algae to proliferate in a given area. Nutrient-rich water, favorable temperature and salinity cause algae to multiply faster. Changes in wind and current patterns, nutrient levels, or other factors in the water can alter how algae reproduce.
One of India’s first ecotourism villages, Kumbalangi has successfully tapped its tourism potential for the well-being of the local community, which depends on fishing and related activities.
“We have a good crowd on the weekends, but this ‘Kavaru’ season the numbers have multiplied. The region has come under the spotlight as people come in the evenings to see the Chinese fishing nets being hoisted up and stay up until the early hours to see the ‘kavaru’,” says Baiju Vijayan, one of the OMKV’s partners Food Village, serving seafood and other local delicacies in Kumbalangi.
However, the influx of “tourists” is a concern for shrimp farmers in Kumbalangi. In their excitement at seeing the sparkle, people threw rocks and pieces of wood that would affect the shrimp on their farms, local fish farmers say.