Again and again, I hear the squealing before pinpointing its origin. The noise is coming from inside a bamboo cage, covered by a straw mattress, on a wooden boat that’s maybe 35ft long and five wide. Three otters peek out from between the slats, seemingly just as curious to see me as I am to lay eyes on them.
Four barefoot men are manoeuvring the boat along one the muddy waterways in the mangrove delta, close to Harbaria in Bangladesh. They are fishermen, one of the 20 or so crews that still ply their trade with the help of otters.
Their net lies on the bamboo deck, between the cage and a small storage area packed with pots, pans and food supplies. The crew go fishing for a week at a time, sleeping on the open deck rather than on the mudflats and islands, where tigers roam.
The team fishes for a couple of hours at a stretch, normally around high tide, the most productive time for making a catch.
One of the fishermen opens the cage. Two of the otters immediately hop onto the deck and nibble at fish strewn there. He lifts out the youngest, cradling it like a thick-tailed pet cat. The furry brown creature with webbed feet was born into captivity. The fishermen bought the other two, its parents, for 10,000 taka (around £77) each.
Before being set to work, a coir harness is fitted around the otters’ forelegs and chest, attached to ropes. On the skipper’s command, the man by the cage lobs a handful of ‘bait’ fish into the water. Enthusiastically the mammals slip overboard, resurfacing with the fish in their mouths before swimming back to the boat. Throwing these bait fish to the otters helps to satisfy their rapacious appetites, the men tell me, so they don’t devour potential catch.
The deckhand throws more bait, this time 10-15 yards from the boat. Two of the men ready their bamboo-framed net in the water. The otters swim back, seeking more easy treats from their human handlers, driving live fish into the net. The concept is brilliant, yet the fishermen empty only a meagre bounty of catfish and shrimps onto the deck. So far they’ve used significantly more fish as bait than they’ve caught.
They repeat the process, this time catching a couple of Asian seabass, known locally as bhetki. The delicacy commands 200 taka (£1.50) per pound at the market in Mongla. The men look pleased.
The crew hauls in between 44-66 pounds of fish a week. It’s stored in an icebox built into the hold.
This traditional style of fishing, one of the fishermen later admits, is not greatly profitable, so the crew supplements its income by demonstrating otter fishing to tourists. The otters, he tells me, become household pets when they’re retired, after between two and five years of work.