Until recently, I had never been on a dolphin-spotting trip. I had seen them while out on the high seas, but I had not gone on a dedicated boat trip just to see them. And, hearing accounts of the haphazard manner in which the majority of the dolphin-spotting excursions were conducted, and how the creatures were ruthlessly chased by scores of music-blaring boats bearing beer-swilling, litter-chucking tourists, I wanted no part of it.
Then, last month, I accompanied my wife Chryselle on a writing assignment. She was covering the work of Terra Conscious, an initiative of Puja Mitra. She organises dolphin trips with a difference: the emphasis is not on a mindless ‘guaranteed sighting’, but it creates awareness of the wonderful creatures that these dolphins are, how we humans all too often unwittingly harm them, and how a win-win path can nevertheless still be found.
We drove up to Chapora jetty, where we first listened to a short powerpoint presentation on these issues, by Mitra herself. It was extremely enlightening, and set the tone for the actual boat trip thereafter.
For instance, one could regard the humpback dolphin in our waters as just as Goan as the rest of us. They are found all along our coast, with a near-shore distribution, inhabiting coastal waters, bays and estuaries usually within 0.5 km of our coastline. Even the taxonomical name of the Indian humpback dolphin, species that populate our waters, sounds Goan: Sousa plumbea.
Like humans, they also form community and societal groups, called pods and superpods. It is reasonable to assume that such societal groups have lived in our waters for generations perhaps going back centuries. So much for their domicile status.
And dolphins in general display culture, something long believed to be unique to humans (and possibly to other primate species). Mitra revealed that studies of the two dolphin pods off Chapora and Candolim displayed different behavioural, bonding and hunting patterns, each unique to their pod.
But the harassment these noble graceful cetaceans endure on a daily basis, from dawn to dusk, has to be seen to be believed. Literally dozens of motor-powered boats, sometimes more, chase after a dolphin pod, cutting their travel paths in many cases, circling around them and coming perilously close, quite often inflicting injury to the dolphins. All to satisfy the lust for a “guaranteed sighting”. Some operators apparently have a “guaranteed sighting or your money back” policy.
A technical report “Promoting sustainable marine tourism in Goa” submitted in July 2016 (and available in the public domain online) written by an academic team that included Puja Mitra details the results of studies that assess the impact of that activities of the boats and other tourism activities on Goa’s wonderfully bountiful yet precariously fragile marine ecosystem.
The other factors studied were the disregard by tourists for safety instructions, noise levels of the boat engines, loud music played on the boats and high decibel levels among the patrons themselves, attempts to feed the dolphins, littering and other unruly behaviour.
Dolphins communicate among themselves through frequency-modulated whistle-like sounds, burst-pulsed sounds and clicks. The clicks are also used for echolocation. In the presence of extraneous noise from motor engines, loud music or human chatter, these signals get garbled and become difficult to decipher, contributing to stress, particularly between mother-calf.
As can be imagined, the dolphins displayed evidence of stress, manifested by changes in behaviour or direction of travel. They were resorting to avoidance behaviour, changing their travel path when a boat approached. An interruption or disruption of the hunting of fish by a dolphin pod means they go hungry. A change in direction of a pod of dolphins in reaction to human behaviour just described often means a hunting expedition has had to be aborted. The constant intrusive human presence prevents their rest cycles, socialising, play and other aspects of their lives.
Dolphins being mammals, the mother feed milk to their young, and the nursing process involves the injection of the milk into the surrounding seawater, to be drunk by the calf in the immediate vicinity. It is a fragile process, and noisy disturbances and fuel pollutants from motorised boats can jeopardise this as well.
In 2015, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests declared dolphins (on account of their high intelligence and sensitivity) as ‘non-human persons’ (in no small part due to the activism of Mitra and colleagues) and forbade their captivity for entertainment. The same logic should apply to forbidding the harassment of dolphins in the open waters as well.
Reading through the report and having watched and listen to Mitra’s presentation, one can’t help but wonder why a bigger deal is not made of the fact that Goa is host to such rich, unique biodiversity hotspots, from the Western Ghats to our oceans. Yet the average tourist, and I daresay the average local, is not made aware of this. All any first-time visitor landing in Goa sees is advertisements for casinos and ‘Sukhothai’ massages, but nary a mention of our biodiversity, and certainly not yet a studied, eco-sensitive way to explore this, apart from the efforts of a few, but sadly not the governmental bodies.
The report also describes the damage from island trips to the coral reefs (due to reckless anchor-dropping and littering) off the Grande Island archipelago, one of the few sites on the west coast of peninsular India where coral reefs are found.
In general, underwater noise, whether from engines or other human activity, takes its toll on a variety of marine animals, from whales and dolphins to sea turtles, and from fish to squid (Convention on Biological Diversity, 2012).
The alarming increase in carcasses of sea turtles, dolphins and whales washed upon our shores in the last few years and the depleting fish stock should warn us of the damage to the marine ecosystem already occurring.
The report nevertheless concludes on a somewhat positive note, making recommendations towards developing a sustainable marine tourism strategy for Goa; a win-win for all stakeholders, from marine life to the tourism industry to the tourists themselves as well as locals.
But all this will be redundant if the disastrous, colossally stupid Mormugao Port Trust expansion for coal import is pushed through by the government against the people’s wishes and sheer common sense. The fallout of the pollution to air and water from coal dust from such a step will be felt not just in the city and its vicinity, but will have a domino effect on our beaches and the coastal ecosystem vital not just for tourism but for sustenance of life itself to us Goans. Our collective Goenkarponn is at stake, affecting life on land, air and water.
(An edited version of this article was published on 14 May 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)