“Dolphin!” the driver of the fishing boat said to me excitedly, as he shook me awake from my slumber in the cabin. It was pitch dark outside. I looked at the time – it was ten past one in the morning. We were far from shore, almost eighty kilometres off the middle of the Karnataka coast, on the crystal clear, inky blue waters of the continental shelf, just over two-hundred feet deep at our location.
Out on these seemingly endless open waters, sighting dolphins takes more luck than in the coastal areas that I am more familiar with, where not a single survey day passes without at least a few humpback dolphins showing themselves. A few dolphins had indeed passed our boat the day before, and were seen by many of the crew but completely missed by me (I only saw distant splashes a few minutes later, and was cursing myself all day for having missed a valuable sighting). “Dolphin?!” I presently asked the driver, rather amused. I was half-convinced he was saying it to pull my leg, just to add insult to injury after that missed sighting. Bleary-eyed and confused, unable to find my glasses and barely able to see anything in the little light cast by the lamps on the boat, I stepped out onto the wet and slimy deck, taking care to avoid tripping over a huge, freshly landed marlin that lay just outside the cabin. It took me a few moments to realise that they had stopped to fish at night, and that the fisherman was pointing not at the open sea, but to the enclosed space within the net. As I peered, a couple of sleek grey fins quickly appeared where he was pointing, glinting quite brightly in the lamplight, and I froze as the reality of the situation sank in. There were dolphins inside the net.
The net in use was a purse seine – a net that is set in a circle around a targeted fish shoal and then drawn shut from below by winching in a drawcord running along its lower horizontal margin (this is analogous to the drawstring of a money-bag or purse, hence the term ‘purse seine’). The net then forms a sort of suspended cup-like cage out of which the fish are eventually plucked. I study the interactions between dolphins and such nets in coastal waters closer to shore, where Indian humpback dolphins occasionally get at the nets from the outside to eat the fish within, coming into conflict with the fishermen. I had never seen or heard of any such interactions involving the other dolphins inhabiting deeper offshore waters in the region (humpback dolphins are found exclusively in much shallower nearshore waters), and all the fishermen I had spoken to had asserted that it is only the humpback dolphins that ever venture close to nets. This was also the first time I had seen any marine mammal inside a closed purse seine. The incidental capture of dolphins in Indian fisheries has been confirmed several times in the past by catch records from fish landing centres, but I had never imagined that this boat trip would lead me to witness such a case – that too with the whole incident, riddled with uncertainty, unfolding right in front of my eyes.
I was incredibly excited to see this pair of dolphins, which seemed to be a species I had never seen before, but the excitement was very heavily shadowed by the thought of what their fate was to be. I didn’t have high hopes of photographing any of this, but I rushed into the cabin, brought out one of my cameras, and fired a few shots using the flash, all the while trying (mostly in vain) to focus manually on the moving dolphins in the little light available. From the two useable photographs that I managed to get, they looked like a pair of pantropical spotted dolphins Stenella attenuata. The offshore waters of the Indian coastline, especially in this region, have hardly been explored at all for marine mammals, and consequently this species has hardly ever been recorded here. I was thrilled to see these dolphins in waters so close to my field site (close to home, so to speak), but these weren’t the kind of circumstances I wanted to see them in.
All this happened in a matter of minutes, while the net was slowly being hauled manually by the 20-odd fishermen at work. I asked the fishermen what they planned to do with their dolphin catch. “We will release them,” they said. It didn’t look like this would work, though, because there was no plan, nobody knew how to go about doing it, and the dolphins’ movements seemed to be getting more and more frantic by the minute. Pantropical spotted dolphins are known to often associate closely with shoaling pelagic fish such as tuna – the same kind of shoals that purse seiners target. In the Eastern Tropical Pacific, or ETP (and probably in other less-studied oceanic regions as well), these dolphins have suffered tremendously with mortalities numbering in the millions as a result of getting encircled within large purse seines used by tuna fishing vessels. Those vessels intentionally track down the dolphins knowing that tuna shoals often swim right under them. In those cases, the dolphins are said to thrash about when encircled, then go into a stupor and sink down into the net if not removed in time. Nowadays, fishing practices in the ETP have been altered for the better, and attempts are made by those crews to release the dolphins alive, but these are not always fruitful. As all this ran through my mind, all I could presently do was wait and watch. The net was spread out over a large area, and the two dolphins within it were wandering throughout this area, now with quick darting movements, sudden dives and abrupt surfacings. There was no way to drive them to one spot and get them past the net, and an attempt to do so would probably mean most of the fish escaping too.
I waited and tried to observe more of what was happening. On a few occasions, I saw waves that momentarily looked like more dolphins. I strained my eyes to see if there were more pod members in the area, knowing that a pair of spotted dolphins would not generally be found alone, but all I could see in the dim light were the bright yellow floats of the net margin. Surfacing dolphins, especially their snort-like exhalations, can be quite easily audible on calm nights, but it was presently too rough and windy for that. The fishermen mentioned to me that they themselves were surprised at the incident, and I did notice at this point that they were as intrigued, perplexed and excited as I was. They had not seen the dolphins at the time of setting the net. The one marlin they had caught was hauled out soon after the net had been set, and when the dolphins were first glimpsed at the far side of the net in the dim light, they had been mistaken for more marlin. This was the first time the crew had ever had dolphins within their net, and some of these people have been operating purse seines for 30 to 35 years now.
It had now been about half an hour since I was woken up and shown the dolphins. The net had been hauled to the point that it was now covering an area smaller than the vessel itself. The small dinghy towed by our vessel now held the far side of the net, so that the net was positioned between the main vessel and the dinghy. The dolphins were now more visible than before, and with no space left, both began to thrash about violently. The fishermen from the main vessel yelled out to the ones in the dinghy to “grab hold of the smaller one” that kept twisting and rolling near the dinghy, surfacing at the very same spot again and again. In spite of all the bursts of energy, it did not seem to be swimming – which is when we saw that it had got its tail fluke entangled in the mesh, and was at one point hanging head down in the water with the taut net holding up its tail. After a few seconds, those of us on the main vessel saw even more vigorous splashes by our side of the net, a little more than an arm’s length away. The second dolphin had got its snout entangled. Things weren’t looking good at all.
The fishermen standing next to me sprang into action; I stepped back from the edge to give them some room, and so for the next few seconds lost sight of what was happening in the water. They promptly dropped in some length of the already hauled net along with its weights; the two men in the dinghy did the same. The slackening and gentle shaking of the mesh apparently enabled the dolphins to disentangle themselves. The crew’s next move was to part the two ends of the net (the ends that meet to form a closed circle, and which are held shut on the main vessel) at the exact moment the dolphins approached it, let the dolphins out through the gap, and quickly secure the ends together again to stop the fish from escaping. They did this so swiftly that I did not comprehend what they had done until several moments later, when I noticed that the dolphins weren’t in the net anymore. “Where did they disappear to?” I asked, still trying to record whatever was visible in the dim light. “Hope you recorded what you wanted,” said the man next to me, “we released them.”
I still stood watching, pleasantly surprised at the way the crew had handled the situation. All this while, I had no idea about how the release could safely be pulled off without having to practically abandon the fishing operation. The dolphins weren’t seen anywhere near the boat or net again. They would obviously have been stressed by the whole incident, perhaps the memory will stay with them, but hopefully they swam back to a normal life. The crew said that this incident was the first of its kind in the almost four-decade-old records of this boat, and that this doesn’t usually happen. It was as new a sighting and experience to them as it was to me. But these waters are fished by a huge number of boats coming from harbours all along the west coast, and some even from the east coast – trawlers, gill netters, long liners, and also quite a large number of purse seiners similar to the one I was aboard. Their catch is not restricted to the desired fish, and it is hard to think that marine mammals are not incidentally caught now and then (at least gill nets and long lines have been known to inadvertently catch dolphins occasionally in Indian waters). Considering the vast area of sea these fishing grounds cover and the impracticality of keeping an eye on everything happening here, we can currently only speculate about how often the region’s marine mammals find themselves stuck in nets.
To not care about the dolphins in the net, to reject the idea of rescuing or releasing them, would be all too easy for a crew looking to make the most of their time, energy and resources catching fish for a living. Even more so in a case like this one, where they were running the risk of letting a substantial catch escape on an otherwise luckless fishing trip. Was it my presence that made them pay extra attention to the dolphins? I cannot answer that with certainty, but from what I could glean from the situation and their attitudes, it did not seem so. The dolphins occurring offshore, along with the whales, are to some extent revered by these people, who are very much aware that these are sentient animals with complex social lives. These fishermen regularly help me spot dolphins during my surveys, and when possible, stop and carefully approach them to let me spend enough time on the sightings and get good enough views to take pictures.
This time, it seemed (happily) that they couldn’t care less about me and my camera, choosing to be more concerned about setting the dolphins free.