Having had my fill of sightings the previous evening (or rather, one sighting that accounted for more than anything I had expected), I woke up rather late the next morning. Everyone was up and about; the sun was already shining quite harshly. The engine had been started up a while ago, Om was at the wheel and we were moving, but when I looked at the dashboard, I found that we were still far from shore. The crew had made a last-minute decision to stay out at sea for a fifth day.
This extra day seemed more an unwanted delay to me than another day of surveying. Four days had seemed like enough – the dehydrating salty air and the blinding glare of sunlight off the water had taken their toll on me. Still sleepy and groggy-eyed, I went into the cabin, trying to use music from my phone to get myself to wake up, while the cook poured me a glass of tea.
Another fish shoal was then spotted. Om pushed the throttle all the way forward, the engine whirred loudly and the boat sped up. Then, all of a sudden, he swung around to me, painfully yanked out the earphones from my ears and very loudly yelled “Devmaas!!!”
A very familiar word that I had heard lots of times, but not with this kind of excitement. I grabbed my camera, staggered to the bow and clambered up to a good vantage point. The fishermen at the bow had already caught one glimpse of it, some distance ahead. Suddenly, all eyes looked to the right, and I turned to face that way. Huge ripples and eddies appeared rhythmically on the surface, not too far away, in a row steadily extending in the same direction and speed as our boat. I focused the camera on the ripples and waited. My finger trembled on the shutter button.
Then, with a snort and a puff of spray that seemed to come out loud and clear over the furious revving of the engine, came the blowhole; then the long grey expanse of the back; another smaller head breaking the surface with three bony ridges running along its top; and then the sickle-shaped fin of the first animal and the smaller fin of the other. Both animals then slowly sank in and were swallowed by the waves. I watched all of this through the viewfinder, with the shutter clicking all throughout. It looked like watching the scene come to life in a flicker book.
Bryde’s whales – an approximately 40-foot-long mother with a calf by her side. The three ridges on the calf’s head made it easy to identify these whales in the one short glimpse I got. These whales seem to be common off our coast; they are frequently seen by fishermen and sailors. Yet, they seem to be ‘rare’ to us because most of these sightings go unreported. Well-documented reports of the species in India are limited to a handful of sightings at sea by researchers and records of dead ones washed ashore.
At almost the same time as the whales disappeared, our boat veered off in another direction, and within a few minutes, set the net. We were in an area where there seemed to be a lot of tunny shoals, and consequently, there were a lot of boats. Maybe the whales were feeding here, I thought, but that one glimpse was the only glimpse I caught of them, and they weren’t seen again. I couldn’t help wondering how the fisheries here impact these huge denizens of the sea. Fishermen here don’t set their nets around whales for two simple reasons – (a) the whales are considered sacred, and (b) a whale in the net obviously cannot end well for the crew, the net and the boat! However, there is no doubt that these fisheries target the same fish that the whales are known to be interested in, and when that happens, accidents can happen.
As for the fish in the net this time – they did not fail, once again dashing out from under the net before the crew could trap them, and communications with the other boats revealed that they weren’t catching much either. The fishermen are quite used to this kind of luck when it comes to fishing something like tuna. My luck, however, seemed to be on top of things, and even the crew couldn’t believe it. The senior fisherman I earlier talked of said to me, “a school of dolphins and a pair of whales in one trip, both at such close quarters, is not something we see often”, as he went through the pictures on my camera over and over again with a big smile.
The last attempt to fish was made that evening, as we headed landwards. This was again met with mixed results. As I sat at the bow, summarising the experiences of the last few days, a few birds unexpectedly dropped by – first some kind of warbler that perched for a few seconds and then took off again (possibly on a migration), and then a swift that flew about the boat for a few minutes. As my eyes followed the black blur of the swift, I happened to catch a glimpse of another black speck in the sky, a bird circling very high up. It looked large and powerful, but we were too far from land for this to be any kind of raptor. Looking at it through the lens, I saw that it was yet another animal that had been on my wishlist for ages – a frigatebird, a large oceanic bird that spends weeks soaring over and across the ocean in its quest for food. Frigatebirds occasionally get blown close to shore by storms, but seeing one far out at sea, where it is in its prime, gave this sighting an extra special touch! With my camera battery almost dead by now, I managed to get only a few pictures, which fortunately were satisfactory enough for a record.
The five days on the boat had worn me down by now, but it all felt more than worth it. A few special seabirds, a huge herd of common dolphins, and Bryde’s whales – all of which I had been able to record properly. The constraints associated with staying far out at sea for long periods and the uncertainty of getting any useful work done there limit our ability to thoroughly explore these areas, especially as independent researchers. But the past two days had been extraordinarily eventful. For a while, I harboured the ridiculous thought that in one trip, I might have exhausted everything interesting that was to be seen in this part of the sea. The two more trips I made in the following months quickly proved me wrong. Although I haven’t had any more truly spectacular sightings, I did learn a lot on these subsequent trips – enough to make me want to go out there again and again, without the objective of seeing anything ‘spectacular’. For example, I was initially under the impression that nearshore fisheries are intensive, but I saw a huge number of boats, many of them coming from far and wide, in the offshore waters as well. More recently, I have heard and then seen for myself that they have multiplied in number and are fishing even more intensively. We have forever been drawing conclusions, about everything in the offshore zone from fish to dolphins, based solely on what we see at harbours on terra firma. Who knows what things are actually like far out at sea?
We ought to get a lot more interested in these realms, and go out and keep an eye on these waters more often – not just for the undeniably charismatic wildlife found there, but also to understand what this place is, how it works, what it means to us and what we mean to it. There are always things out there we haven’t known before, things that blow our minds, and things we really need to know, really soon.