Field work is never without an element of comic relief. In my case, a very great deal of it comes from an unlikely bunch of creatures – sea gulls. Over the course of the time I have spent near or at sea, they have delivered generous doses of awe, surprise and sheer entertainment on a regular basis.
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.
“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 onset of the monsoon brings about a fantastic transformation in the diversity of life on beaches. If you are a regular beach-stroller, you have probably noticed the myriad of creatures that start to appear around this time of year, many of them having been washed ashore by the very strong near-shore winds that bring the rain-loaded clouds. One such very pretty, curious-looking creature is the blue button (Porpita porpita).
“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.