You put me on a boat, and I will turn into a vomiting Walrus fit for an Adam Sandler film. Despite the hitch, I said “yes” to a deep-sea fishing experience off the coast of Chennai. I might have weak sea legs, but I have been fangirling maritime explorers from the time I was knee-high. I have always pondered about what would it be like on the high seas, surrounded by the mighty ocean and its hidden mysteries? Would it be like David facing Goliath or like Laika on Sputnik 2?
I went prepared. Got two prescriptions for motion sickness, had a light dinner the night before and only water in the morning. Lathered myself with sunscreen, parked a wraparound goggles on my topknot, packed a hat in my bag and headed to the Chennai Port in Southern India where the 117-year-old Madras Royal Yacht Club, the ratifying authority for deep sea fishing jaunts, is located. Early morning is an ideal time to go fishing in the open seas. Fish are closer to the surface when the temperature is cooler.
Deep sea fishing, also known as sport-fishing, is different from regular fishing. In the fathomless waters, you are angling for big game fish — tuna, swordfish and even sharks. Here, the fish are jousters and sea-smart. They know their waterscape like the back of their fins. So, tackling a challenger needs not just a pair of strong arms but also the skill of a chess player and the patience of spy.
Ancient wisdom deems that you don’t fish for greed but for food. Or for sport say avid anglers. Unlike hunting where “sport” would translate into killing an animal, in the ocean, it also includes letting go of a fish alive. It is too early for me to know how I was going to feel about sport-fishing. So far my encounters with the aquatic vertebrates have only been at the end of my fork.
Deep sea sport-fishing is popular in Phuket, Victoria, Cape Town and so on. In India, you can indulge in it off the coast of Chennai. Santosh GJ of Blue Waters Deep Sea Sport-Fishing offers this experience, even to novices, and organises two, three and eight-fishing trips almost every weekend or as and when required. Anglers from Finland, UK and Europe are regulars.
Once the paperwork was completed at the Yacht Club, I boarded Sea Rocket, one of the two customised boats of Blue Waters. The other, Sea Hawk, was docked for a coat of paint.
FISHING ON THE HIGH SEAS
The 24 ft. Sea Rocket is a powerboat with a maximum capacity of eight. We were five including the boat master and Santosh. For the trip, Santosh had packed a bag of sandwiches, a cooler filled with beer and juice and a trash bag. Littering the ocean is strictly prohibited aboard Sea Rocket. It is not uncommon to see plastic bottles floating on the sea.
Strapped to a bright orange life jacket, I clutched the steel rail tightly as we ventured out from the pier.
Sea Rocket glided across the waters. The silhouette of a city-at-dawn passed me by, and soon the shore disappeared. The sun was in no hurry to rise. The boat sliced through the waves, and I could taste salt on my lips.
We were heading to a natural reef a little more than five nautical miles from the coast — a two-and-a-half-hour ride. Here the ocean dips into a 250-ft. deep stretch. Reefs are populated with small fish that’s food for the big fish. “This is a good place to trawl,” Santosh announced. Two lines were dropped, one for the fish. way down and the other for those swimming shallow. The boat moved off, and the lines trailed behind.
The gentle rhythm of the boat, cool ocean breeze and the warm sun lulled me to sleep. Deep sea fishing does not insist on continuous conversations. The sound of the sea is conversation enough. Silence is embraced, and contemplation is the norm. And napping is habitual. Because it can take hours before you feel a tug at the end of the line.
We didn’t have to wait for too long before Santosh shouted: “We got one.” We began reeling the line in. It wasn’t easy. Whatever it was that was at the other end wasn’t small. “Sometimes, we would reel in only to find plastic covers tangled in the hook,” he said.
KING MAC ON THE LINE
All eyes were focused on the writhing line. Then the red and white fish-shaped lure (we weren’t using live fish as bait) bobbed in the water, attached to it was the hook and biting it firmly were the sharp teeth of a king mackerel. Though the mackerel isn’t a gladiator of the sea, this one was no pushover. He pulled hard, and we let the king have his way. Santosh knew the mackerel would tire soon.
Once Santosh caught a giant trevally that fought tooth and gills for more than 90 minutes, taking the boat on a 360-degree spin before losing the fight. The king mackerel wasn’t giving up easily. He tried to get under the boat where his chance of escaping was much higher since it becomes difficult to reel the line in. The boat master trawled skillfully, and the King was reeled intact.
It was more than a foot long with onyx black eyes and brown patterns on its skin. Later we discovered he weighed 7kgs. The fish would remain alive for less than three minutes out of the water, and a decision had to be made. Do we let it back into the sea or take it home? If it is the former, the fish would be gently revived by holding it under the water and then let go. The hooks embedded in its mouth would dissolve, and in no time the King would be as good as new.
Somehow the idea of catching a fish, holding it out of the water and taking a selfie while it is gasping for breath and then releasing it didn’t sit well with me. I’d instead honour the King’s valiant fight by turning him into fish fry. But that’s just me.
Many who indulge in deep sea sport fishing release their catch back alive. That prevents over-fishing a species.
By now it was noon, and the sun was high and beating down our backs. The air was still. The waves were choppy. And my anti-vomiting medication stopped working its magic.
Still, we decided to venture further where a sunken Bangladeshi ship-turned-reef is the playground of barracudas. “If you are lucky you can even spot dolphins,” Santosh said. I was more interested in the dolphins than the barracudas.
I did not spot dolphins, but I did see flying fish. Though it wasn’t as dramatic as it was in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, it was exhilarating.
I began the journey with a question: what is it like on the high seas? Late evening, savouring a piece of fried King Mackerel, I had an answer: Being in the middle of the ocean is like lounging on a giant waterbed. It is bewitching. Placid. Transdental…until the tango begins in the pit of your stomach.
Deep Sea Sport Fishing packages
(For four adults)
2 hours Rs.12000
4 hours Rs. 22,000
8 hours Rs. 36,000
The cost includes port passes, club guest charges, life jackets, fishing gear, light snacks and beverages.
For more details www.chennaisportfishing.com
DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIRST OCEAN TRIP?
WHAT WAS IT LIKE?
In the early morning hours when the sun rises on the horizon, the ocean is like shimmering liquid gold. Here’s what I saw….
A different version of this article was published in Live Mint. And also in Khaleej Times Weekend Magazine