The Great Backwaters has a rich aquatic life. Vembanad Lake, for instance, is home to about 150 species of fish. The estuarine nature of the lake, with its rich sediment deposits, makes it a good habitat for shrimp. Mullets, catfish and pearl fish are also seen in abundance. The backwaters also has more than 70 edible species, which include shrimp, mullets, pearl spots, crabs, oysters, clam, milkfish, scampi, catfish etc.
A detailed survey along the entire coastal stretch
of Kerala revealed 39 species of mangrove flora and
associates from 10 backwater ecosystems of Kerala.
The mangroves that border the eastern banks of the Vembanad Lake harbour a variety of endemic and exotic species of birds, which make the region a hotspot for naturalists and ornithologists. The mangroves, though not rich in species diversity, provide a rich habitat for migratory birds.
The Ashtamudi estuary has 43 species of marshy and mangrove varieties including Syzygium travancoricum trees, a critically endangered species on the IUCN Red List.
The numerous freshwater and brackish lakes and waterlogged paddy fields that form part of the Great Backwaters are some of Kerala’s major birding habitats. Kumarakom, for instance, is the abode of birds like Kingfishers, Cormorants, Waterhens, Egrets, Herons, Bitterns, Terns and Shikras. The Pathiramanal Island is home to about 90 species of birds and 30 species of butterflies. The backwaters between the island and the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary is a favourite haunt of migratory birds from Siberia and Europe.
Life on the Great Backwaters is a synergy between man and nature and the chief occupations of the people are closely associated with nature
The history of paddy cultivation can be traced back to centuries. Its evolution was correlated to the technological advancement of this place. Large farming areas near Vembanad Lake were actually reclaimed from the lake.
Coir-making is one of the primary occupations of the people living in the backwaters. Entire villages engaging in coir-making can be seen along the waterside.
Freshwater prawns, lobsters, crabs, clams and oysters, which find a ready market overseas, are caught from these backwaters. The fishermen use small canoes for fishing.
Duck farming is a way of life for the people living by the backwaters as there is no dearth of paddy fields and canals.
The people of the backwaters have their own mode of transport. Here, the waterways replace roads for all practical purposes.
The houseboats (kettuvalloms) have been a part of the backwaters from time immemorial. Once a popular mode for transporting goods, they are today the best mode of transport to enjoy the unhurried pace of life in the Great Backwaters.
These boats vary from 100 to 138 ft. in length. With the rear portion towering to a height of about 20 ft., and a long tapering front portion, it resembles a snake with its hood raised. Its hull is built of planks precisely 83 ft. in length and six inches wide. Today, snake boat races are the largest team sport in the world. The boats are oiled with a black mixture of fish oil, coconut shell, carbon and egg shells, which keeps the wood strong and the boat slippery in water.
Country boats are made using sustainable and local materials like jackwood, woven together with coir (a coarse fibre found on the outside of a coconut shell) and sealed with fish oil. The boats last for up to 50-60 years, with a yearly application of fish oil.
Kerala is home to some of the finest boat builders in the world. Snake boats, which are 100 ft. long and seats over 90 oarsmen are built without using even a single nail.