“There is nothing out here – no whales, no dolphins, no fish” muttered the boat driver ruefully, as I sat in the cabin having an evening glass of tea. I ought to have been scouting from my spot at the front of the boat, but I was too weary to do that. There were only a couple of hours of daylight left, and the coming sunset would mark the end of the fourth and final day of that fishing trip in late November. Nothing spectacular had been sighted so far, and to see the kind of wildlife I was hoping to, I would need to be ridiculously overoptimistic now. All kinds of wildlife-watching involve some degree of luck, and if a lack of luck can dampen one’s spirit, then mine was completely drenched.
This was the first time I had been so far out at sea, off the coast of northern Karnataka, for so long on a less-than-comfortable fishing boat. I thought back to how I had landed there in the first place, and the admittedly ambitious idea seemed pretty ridiculous now. It had started rather suddenly, after I received a surprise phone call from the crew inviting me to join them for four days offshore, an offer that was impossible for me to resist. Among the several local fishermen I had previously spoken to about marine mammal sightings, many had mentioned seeing whales on a regular basis in the offshore waters. Whales certainly occur here, but I had never seen one myself, and there were no photographic records of live whales from the region. One or two boatmen had even mentioned seeing, very infrequently, a kind of sleek dolphin, blackish in colour and smaller than the Indian humpback dolphin everyone was used to seeing. They also reported seeing “hundreds of these dolphins together, in massive herds sometimes spread out as far as the horizon”. I couldn’t stop thinking about these intriguing accounts, and longed to go out there to see for myself. This was the chance I had to strike that off my to-do list.
The phone call had me hurriedly shoving everything important into my bag (mostly only field equipment and some snacks) and dashing off to the harbour. We set sail that afternoon, and I grabbed my usual spot at the top of the mast alongside Om, a fisherman friend who helps as an observer during surveys, and who is also my number one go-to person for local marine mammal news. The area just outside the port is usually a hub of humpback dolphin activity at that time of day, but it seemed ominously empty that day. “Whales used to come right up to here, chasing fish shoals” said Om, then adding with a touch of woe to his tone, “until the number of fishing boats multiplied, patrolling boats came in, and the area got developed. Maybe the sound from all the machinery and SONAR is what drove them away.” With nothing much to see (other than a very beautiful moonrise), we called that a day and returned to the cabin at dusk.
We continued to drive on westwards, away from land, with the depth readout steadily going beyond the 20m mark that I am usually confined to, until it reached 50m at about nine in the night. Here we stopped – it seemed we had arrived at a well-known albeit hidden landmark, a huge submerged rock around which fish congregate. The net was set here, and the fish that it caught made up the first bit of catch for the trip and our first meals. “You should catch some sleep and continue surveying tomorrow. We shall be driving all night,” said Om, as he took over for a night-shift at the wheel.
The next morning, as always on a boat out at sea, the first rays of the rising sun were bright enough to wake me up. The GPS navigator and depth readout indicated that we had travelled south from last night’s stop, and were now cruising parallel to the coast. As soon as the light was good enough and my eyes open wide enough, I was back at the front of the boat to scan the horizon for anything interesting, and there I stayed the whole day, taking breaks for meals (all of which, including breakfast, comprised a heap of brown rice with one or two fish preparations). This was to be my routine for the next few days to follow.
I knew I was looking for wildlife that is not particularly easy to find, and in such cases, it helps to start with fingers crossed but with zero expectations. I am fascinated by all life forms at sea, including pelagic seabirds, and on that first morning, I was pleased to quickly chance upon a pomarine skua – an uncommon seabird that I had been longing to sight. However, I saw no signs of mammals. We found our first school of tunny, a kind of small tuna, that same morning – but the haul was surprisingly small. All tuna are very fast, powerful swimmers (it is odd that such charismatic fish are known to most of us only as food), and from the shoal our boat had targeted and trapped, an estimated three quarters had made a dash through the gap in the net before the three to four minute long procedure of setting it had been completed. This happened with every attempted set, and the moods on the boat quickly started running low.
The next two days went by in much the same manner – with most of the fish outwitting the fishermen’s strategies and outrunning their net, and with me sighting nothing more than the few seabirds and flying fish that kept me interested. We would often come across patches of sea where a number of boats would be fishing (I was quite surprised to see the large number of fishing boats offshore, having earlier believed that the nearshore waters are more intensively fished) – purse seiners like ours, trawlers ploughing the water in straight lines, and the occasional longliner casting its hooks. We even came across a few fishermen in small motorised open-top canoes (note that we were at least 40km away from land) who were hand-lining for cuttlefish with remarkable efficiency. Many of these boats were from outside the region, and did not interact with us at all. When we did happen to meet familiar boats, we would exchange pleasantries, fishing information and occasionally some of our catch. The weather over these days kept swinging without warning from one extreme to the other, the sea going from an enchanting glassy smoothness to tossing about so much that those of us at the front had to hug the mast with both arms.
Marine mammals, however, were nowhere to be seen, and I found myself getting frustrated. Dolphin superpods (aggregations of smaller pods, to form very large herds) are something even the fishermen rarely see, and I honestly wasn’t optimistic of seeing any myself, but whales are relatively common sightings in the offshore zone that we were in. “Aren’t whales found close to tunny shoals?” Om asked another senior member of the crew, sensing my frustration. “They often are… but there seem to be no whales around now” was the reply. By the middle of the fourth day, I had all but lost my patience, and felt too weary to keep an eye out any longer. I had been looking out on a featureless dark blue sea surface for the past several daylight hours, and there had been no splashes, no fins and no blows. In a few hours, the sun would set, and we were supposed to be back at the harbour by dawn the next day. A few fishermen were still scouting for fish from the mast, hoping to make the most of their last day. I wasn’t as optimistic, and so there I was in the cabin, sipping my tea slowly with no intention of going back out.
Suddenly, the driver prodded me, gestured to the front of the boat and exclaimed, “He’s seen something!” The senior fisherman, who was at the bow with a few others, was pointing straight ahead. I rushed out with my camera and immediately peered toward the horizon, but saw absolutely nothing. “Are you joking?” I asked them. “You really can’t see them?” they asked me back. Then, as the boat moved on, I started to see a few splashes, and soon the definite outlines of fins.
To say I was excited would be a gross understatement. I did not even try to guess what these dolphins were, but I knew they were a species I hadn’t seen before. I immediately started firing away with my camera. The fishermen shared my excitement; although I was hardly paying attention to them, I could hear them frantically shouting at me to click, cheering every time a dolphin rocketed out of the water. Then I heard someone say, “There is a whole school!” I took my eye away from the camera for a second, and was astounded to see that while I had been following seven or eight individuals through the viewfinder, the water ahead of us had erupted with dolphins. Soon they were all around us. I had heard, read and watched a lot about such large aggregations before, but had never actually experienced such numbers. I was absolutely bewildered, shooting blindly in all directions, until I got my bearings again and figured that they were divided into smaller groups. Then, turn by turn, I shot at least satisfactory photos of the dolphins in most of the groups. Om, noticing that I was finding it difficult to photograph the large groups with a telephoto lens, grabbed my GoPro camera and simultaneously shot a wide video of one of the groups porpoising together and leaping in unison. We hung around in the area and carefully followed the dolphins for about twenty minutes, and then decided to move on.
It took me some time to fathom what I had just seen. Going through the photos – almost 400 of them – helped me do that. All of us compared the numbers we saw, and decided that there were roughly between 80 and 120 dolphins in all (some crew members who had seen superpods before insisted that there were more than 150). These were Arabian common dolphins – a kind that does occur here, but has been reported only a handful of times from the west coast waters, with most records being of specimens entangled in fishing nets, many of them likely misidentified as common dolphins. Many observers, especially people unfamiliar with dolphins, tend to use the term ‘common dolphin’ very loosely; humpback dolphins for instance, which are easily seen on a quick boat ride or even from shore in most places along this coast, are often wrongly reported as common dolphins, apparently because they are common and have a somewhat similarly long beak. The ‘real’ common dolphins (scientifically Delphinus delphis, D. capensis, and a distinct subspecies of the latter in this part of the world, the ones I saw – D. c. tropicalis, which could be a separate species in its own right) are easily identified by their distinctly shaped dorsal fins, and an unmistakable criss-cross pattern on their sides, the front half of which is a light yellowish-cream coloured patch. I had never imagined seeing a superpod of common dolphins in the waters off Karwar (or anywhere on the west coast), and it certainly wasn’t on my ‘expected’ list for this trip. As if that sighting wasn’t enough, I was treated to one more sighting of a group of common dolphins (possibly one of the same groups from the previous sighting) when they travelled north past us about an hour later, while our boat had been stopped for fishing.
With my renewed fervour and a very strong sense of satisfaction, I chose to sit at the bow beyond sunset, and spent the first hours of darkness watching bioluminescent creatures light up the bow wave as our boat travelled on. The very eventful evening had made up for all the dejection and boredom from the previous days, and I had got more than what I wanted from this trip. After we had steadily travelled a considerable distance north, the crew chose to rest for the night and move on at daybreak. We would be back in Karwar the following morning. The anchor was dropped, 65 metres of rope went in, and everybody went off to sleep. I could hardly sleep myself, for I could not wait to get home, download the pictures and break the news to friends and colleagues.
I ended up spending a long time out on the breezy deck, under the star-studded sky, until I finally dozed off there.
[More to come…]