Your Own Pet Cormorants

Ever since I learned about the practice of cormorant fishing from BBC's Wild China documentary series over a decade ago, I wanted to photograph the event.

Imagine my ecstasy when I was fortunate to find a couple of fishermen on Li river, near Xingping, going about their "regular" business. I followed them around for a while, and my endurance paid off in the end. With twilight approaching, I quickly set up my photography gear and drone camera. It was a memorable sunset, nature at its best, and I still wish I had stayed for another day. The experience was unique: a lone fisherman preparing treats for his assistants, the cormorants.

To find the best way to photograph the wise old fisherman and his flock of fawning cormorants, you’d do yourself a favor if you hired a local guide. Usually, English-speaking guides are hard to get, and it becomes even more problematic if you’re looking for an English-speaking guide who can double as your personal chauffeur. So imagine my ecstasy when I could arrange for the latter option without too much hassle. Not only did my guide provide for some great sightseeing tips, he even tipped the fisherman to pose for some candid shots. In the end, I ended up shooting simultaneously with my drone as well as my handheld camera. The landscape I saw rivaled the documentary that catapulted me towards this mission. So, if this was to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I had to make sure I had all my vantage points covered.

From Yangshuo, the fishermen’s village was a solid two-hour drive downstream, so I had to leave enough time to arrive there while there was still daylight. Experience and a little sense of direction told me that the absolutely splendid Karst mountain ranges should be a spellbinding backdrop with the setting sun, so I had to be quick. As I began assembling my camera gear on the pebbled beach I noticed two fishermen, each on his boat, crisscrossing the breadth of the shallow Li river, seemingly aimlessly. One of them looked particularly interesting (from my photographic standpoint), so armed with my translator-guide, I approached to chitchat with him. Thus began my evening of discovery into China’s once-upon-a-time past.

Eventually, the old fisherman of Yangshuo invited me on his boat. Knee-deep in water, I got on to his slippery boat, and notwithstanding the continuous pecking from one of his five cormorants (the "evil" one), I considered myself lucky to capture those moments from up close. What's undeniable about this unique experience is that it's one of those few exotic things that you can actually do with your family, and since it's both accessible and enjoyable for children, this is one of those activities that is highly recommended by us.

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