Into the deep sea with Thoothukudi Meenavan: A must-watch vlog run by a TN fisherman

29-year-old Sakthi Vel is a BA Economics graduate whose videos not only give a glimpse of the lives of fishermen but also breathtaking views of the deep sea.
Fisherman Sakthi vel
Fisherman Sakthi vel
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Did you know that it is possible to catch fish using palm tree leaves? Have you heard of a modified bird trap being used to catch crabs? It is also possible to anchor a boat in the middle of the sea using a (sea) parachute, but have you ever seen it being done?

These are some of the wild and fascinating details we came across while going through some of the popular YouTube channels run by fishermen vloggers living in Tamil Nadu’s coastal districts. Notable among them are Thoothukudi Meenavan, Ungal Meenavan Mookaiyur and Nagai Meenavan. There are several more such channels but these are the ones with the most number of subscribers on YouTube.

TNM got in touch with one of them, the Thoothukudi Meenavan, to discuss their vlogs, what inspires them and some of the wacky videos they’ve made so far.

The Thoothukudi Meenavan page is run by 29-year-old M Sakthi Vel, a BA Economics graduate. His videos are not only on the lives of fishermen but also give us a peek into the rich and breathtaking deep sea from just off the coast of Thoothukudi harbour, Threspuram and Vembar. The video in which he goes deep-sea diving to collect conch shells (sangu), a practice unique to Thoothukudi is especially memorable. Diving for pearls and now conch shells is an ancient practice in this region, with pearl diving also finding mention in Sangam literature.

One also has to understand that the ocean here is rich with corals, unlike other coasts, and this part is therefore rich with diverse flora and fauna. Sakthi Vel, during our conversation, takes special pride in explaining some of their unique features — “We’re also the only ones here who can still fish using an arrow, they don’t do this in other Tamil Nadu coastal villages.”

Sakthi Vel, born and brought up in the harbour beach region of Thoothukudi district, comes from a family line of deep sea divers. While his grandfather used to go pearl diving, his father took to conch shell diving, a practice that Sakthi's older brother still follows. “We no longer go diving for pearls because the species has been destroyed. My father too has stopped conch shell diving. Only my elder brother does it now,” says Sakthi, who also has two other younger brothers who go fishing along with him. His mother, Sakthi shares, cuts and sells fish on the coast.

He says that he was inspired to document his region, his people and their fishing methods to ensure that there is some record of their lives and practices. “We don't have any records of our lives so far. We also don’t know if we’ll continue to be blessed with the catch that we used to get. Our fishing practices, the kind of marine species, may all change in the future.  So I thought that I should just record my surroundings, my everyday life," he says.

Sakthi Vel continues, “I also want to show people our difficulties. Give them the complete picture. You’ll notice my videos are not just what happens on the shore, it’s on what happens when one’s on the boat in the middle of the sea, underwater or even at one’s home.”

The young vlogger is conscious of protecting the species in his region. In addition to being sensitised to the perils of launch boat fishing near the coast, Sakthi shares that he takes special care in protecting sea turtles and seahorses. “They are magnificent creatures and if they get caught in our nets by mistake, we immediately cut our nets to free them. I have so much admiration for the two species and I hope to encounter the seahorse sometime during my deep-sea dives,” he adds.

Sakthi shoots using his mobile phone, a Samsung J8 model, a GoPro 6 gifted by a friend and a video camera that he purchased for Rs 6,000. “I edit it on the same phone overnight,” Sakthi adds.

The young vlogger who admits to have improved his video presence after having seen the narrative videos put out by Meenavan Mookaiyur (a channel which has a greater following), shares that he wants to do more than just vlogs. He has started a crowdfunding initiative to help an elderly couple living in his village. “Paati and thatha have six children but they have been abandoned by them in their old age. To earn Rs 300 as a minimum wage, they have to collect seashells for at least a couple of days. They lived in a thatched roof house that was falling apart. When people saw a video I put on them, they were willing to contribute money,” Sakthi says.

Sakthi pooled in the money that was sent by his viewers, added what he could and renovated their home. The elderly couple also got new clothes and solar-powered lights inside their house. “We’re just waiting for the fan to arrive,” Sakthi says, adding this was the first time the couple were going to use devices run by electricity.

More than the appreciation he gets from folks online, where some even praise his videos to be as good as the documentaries that come out on the Discovery Channel, Sakthi says that he values the encouragement and support he gets from his wife the most. “If not for her, I wouldn’t be doing this. She’s my biggest pillar of support. My wife and my daughter,” he adds, and the love he has for his family is evident from his tone.

Of his best videos, the deep-sea conch shell diving one is top rated. But the young vlogger says that his best memories are from two specific videos — the one with the octopus and the other with the snakehead fish. “Both are very dangerous, the snakehead fish especially. It is venomous and very predatory. When I took the video, I was just a few feet away from it. Usually professional divers never get so close, they zoom with their cameras,” he says, sharing some of his adventurous escapades underwater. “It is like walking into a lion’s den and extending a handshake,” he jokes. 

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