Monsoon takes on a whole new meaning when you find yourself in the highest rainfall zone of the Western Ghats (also the second highest rainfall zone in India). Agumbe, a wonderfully forested region in western Karnataka, often referred to by herpetologists as the ‘King Cobra capital of the world’, happens to be this region. It has been known to receive an average of 7640 millimetres of rainfall a year, and a record of 4508 millimetres in a single month.
Though water makes up 97.5% of our planet, only 3.5% of it is fresh water. Freshwater ecosystems occupy only 0.8% of the earth’s surface, but harbour nearly 6% of all known species. These incredibly dynamic and rich ecosystems function as the backbone for life as we know it. Agumbe shows us just a fraction of the millions of species that inhabit this planet alongside us, and their dependence on fresh water.
With the coming of the monsoons and the first few showers, one witnesses a miraculous transformation of the landscape. At first, the thirsty laterite soil seems to absorb every drop of water. But the rain is incessant, and soon every little ditch, depression, and trench is converted into a water-body. Dry streams – reduced to interspersed pools and rocks in the summer months – begin to trickle and then flow. Rivulets course through plantations and forests, rapidly feeding these streams and rivers. As the rivers begin to flow, cascading over weathered rock, fallen trees and the dry banks, they set in motion countless processes of revival, birth, growth, life and death.
Water and moisture have profound effects on the germination, breeding, nesting, spawning, metamorphosis, feeding, and movement, of organisms across taxa. From bacteria to birds, snails to reptiles, frogs to fish, arthropods to otters, and everything in between, there is an evident burst of activity, creating a system best described as a living laboratory.
The uncertainty of what critters we might be lucky to come by in Agumbe, and more importantly, whether the arrival of the unpredictable monsoon would coincide with our shoot played on our minds while we travelled from Bangalore. From a photographer’s point of view, what made this shoot very challenging and interesting was that most of our subjects were what many people consider uncharismatic. Every photograph was therefore carefully composed with the intention to achieve a slightly different perspective that helped portray the subject’s life, habitat and connection to water.
What may not be evident from the images is that our shoot involved bites from blood-sucking invertebrates, staying wet and cold for hours, continuously wiping our lenses dry, juggling gear while balancing on wet rocks, and lying half-submerged in streams waiting for the perfect moment: many moments of extreme frustration and despair, but also many more moments of excitement and enlightenment.
As the first rains of the monsoon hit the Western Ghats, small streams burst forth and begin to connect stagnant water-bodies.
Even as early as the second day of the monsoon, there is a palpable energy in the forest, and the sounds and smells change. Here, a Praying Mantis gets jostled about by the wind and the falling raindrops.
A Hump-nosed Pit Viper (Hypnale hypnale).
The beginnings of a waterfall: the intensity of this cascade will increase swiftly, sometimes in a matter of hours, as the torrential rain beats down on Agumbe.
Drooping and dried-out plants in stream beds get the first new rush of water that they have been waiting for all summer. In a couple of days, the stream bottom will once again be a verdant green, with rejuvenated flora.
Many creatures seem to know that the time for mating has begun, and the forest is soon abuzz with activity.
After the first few weeks of the monsoon, this stream will be gushing with water, and all the aquatic vegetation visible here will be completely submerged.
After a night of mass mating where hundreds of toads descended upon this area to breed, female Indian Toads left large clusters of fertilised eggs in every available puddle and pool in this forest meadow.
As the forest streams deepen with the increasing rain, other larger species of fish that were probably waiting out the summer in deeper pools downstream begin to venture upstream. Many of them do this to return to old, established breeding grounds, where they will lay their eggs.
In the few hours that it takes for these low-lying forest meadows to flood after the onset of the first heavy shower, a surprising number of animals make their appearance.
One of them is the catfish. The incredible number of different aquatic animals that suddenly show up when enough water has collected leads one to wonder where these animals hid out, and what meagre source of moisture kept them alive until this monsoon?
Aside from catfish, other species that appeared on the evening of the first day of the monsoon showers were the Indian Black Turtle, snakeheads (Genus Channa), a number of species of crabs, and diving beetles by the thousands.
A fishing spider perches itself on a log of wood, waiting for unsuspecting fish that might venture too close to the surface.
Frogs are some of the most sensitive creatures, giving them the ‘canary in the coal mine’ status for wetland and forest ecosystems. Their dynamic position in the food chain as herbivores, insectivores, predators and prey, clubbed with the sensitive nature of their skin, positions this group of animals as critical indicator species. (Image: a close-up of a frog’s skin).
The versatile Golden-backed Frog (Hylarana) occupies a variety of habitats and water-bodies from shallow inundated fields, like this one here, to deeper ponds and the edges of flowing streams.
A close-up of the face of the Bicoloured Frog (Clinotarsus curtipes), showing the bright red in its eyes.
In the first weeks of the monsoon showers, Malabar Gliding Frogs (Rhacophorus malabaricus) are exceptionally active. Males and females descend from higher up in the trees towards low-lying branches that are located above pools of water. This male was keeping a close eye on a female, while also assessing rival males nearby.
A super-macro image of two eggs of the Malabar Gliding Frog surrounded by the protective foam produced by the female and the male. These foam nests are strategically placed above pools of freshwater. When the tadpoles hatch from their eggs, they drop out of the foam nest into the pools, to begin the next phase of their life cycle.
View our short film on the Agumbe monsoons: