Watching Dolphins and Working with Communities

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 38 No. 10, October 2018

By Puja Mitra

I moved to Goa almost six years ago when I joined the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) to run their campaign to ban the establishment of dolphinaria in India. In a bid to boost tourism, state governments of Delhi, Maharashtra, Kerala, Gujarat and Goa were planning large oceanariums, which would hold captive dolphins on display, much like the Sea World in the west.

I had recently completed an M.Sc. in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management from the University of Oxford as a Commonwealth Scholar, and had actually been building up an interest to work on human-elephant conflict management. However, a new job and relocation opened up a window into our oceans and coasts, which had thus far, been a completely unknown zone to me. Having grown up in Bengaluru, coastal visits were limited to holidays, and I knew very little about marine ecology and conservation challenges. At FIAPO, when we began planning the campaign, along with inputs from ecologists studying cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in India; I was fortunate enough to learn from Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and expert in animal behaviour and intelligence, formerly on the faculty of Emory University, U.S.A. Internationally known for her work on the evolution of the brain and intelligence in dolphins and whales, she is especially recognised for her ground-breaking 2001 study that offered the first conclusive evidence for mirror self-recognition in bottlenose dolphins. 

Another marine mammal scientist, Dr. Naomi Rose had also published several papers about the impact of captivity on cetaceans. As I learnt more about these amazing mammals, their emotive and cognitive abilities, their complex social structures, their incredible bonds with one another and their habitat use, I was disturbed to realise the physiological and psychological trauma they experienced in captivity, due to our exploitation of these intelligent, sentient beings in the name of entertainment education and profit. 

We, in India, know much too little about our oceans, much less about dolphins, sea turtles, coral reefs and their conservation, and the reliance of coastal communities on the oceans for their livelihood. Yet in every city I visited, I would engage with people who I found were curious to learn more and who wanted to help our campaign. Eventually, India became the fourth country in the world to ban the establishment of dolphinariums and the first to use the words, ‘non-human persons’ for dolphins, in recognition of their intelligence and cognitive abilities. 

Dolphin-watching – the Wrong Way

Soon after, a chance visit by my mother, saw us on a dolphin-watching boat in Goa, heading out to see these marine animals in the Arabian sea. It was a devastating experience. The boats chased the animals, coralling (surrounding) them for closer viewing. There was no signage on the jetty, no briefing from the boat operator. It was a painful 45 minutes involving boats chasing dolphins. Clearly, they were stressed and when I spoke with other tourists on board, I realised no one was learning or taking away anything of value from the experience. It was a wasted opportunity to build awareness about our marine life and ecosystems. 

The author and Founder-Director of Terra Conscious organised knowledge-building sessions with boat operators in Morjim, Goa. This helped them deal more confidently with tourists.  Photo Courtesy: Terra Conscious

My next job was with the World Wide Fund for Nature – India (WWF-India), which had begun an Oceans and Coasts programme and were looking to start a project in Goa. I suggested we look at the impact of tourism on dolphins and corals in Goa, and with the support of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN-India) and the Goa Forest Department, we embarked on the study. 

Working with DCF Anil Kumar and PCCF Ajai Saxena, and guided by marine ecologist Dr. Dipani Sutaria, our research team at WWF-Goa comprising marine biologists Shreya Sanjeev, Abhishek Jamalabad and Gabriella d’Cruz found that the dolphins were displaying avoidance behaviour around the boats.There was no tourist engagement, no capacity building for operators to offer sensitive, responsible dolphin-watching experiences. Disturbingly, we also discovered an informal ‘No dolphin, no payment’ practice being propagated by the larger tour operators. This meant chasing the animals until a sighting was had, to avoid giving a refund.

Thus, it became clear that transformative action was required to make dolphin watching regulated and conducted according to internationally-accepted guidelines.

The Marine Mammal Commission estimates that the global whale and dolphin watching industry is worth around 2.5 billion USD. However, in India, we are still grappling with how to engage with the marine environment, often deploying unsuitable activities such as high-speed water sports, which ends up having a negative impact on marine wildlife. Soon enough, WWF-Goa established a training programme for 40 operators out of the 300 or so engaged in conducting dolphin-watching trips in north Goa. We shared guidelines for responsible dolphin watching, but discovered to our dismay that subsequent visits revealed little compliance. This was largely because of poor market linkages and little or no awareness amongst visitors or promoters. Of course, there were no government-led enforcement of rules and guidelines. 

This is what prompted me to launch Terra Conscious in 2017 as a conservation, social impact enterprise focused on marine conservation education and responsible travel. We began a Boat Operator Partnership Programme in association with eight community boat operators led by Chandrahas Dhurat, the first operator to partner with us, from the village of Morjim in north Goa. Their grandfathers and fathers have fished the bay in front of their village for over 50 years, but trawling pressure forced the younger generation to shift to dolphin-watching. 

Within a season of introducing and implementing ethical dolphin-watching guidelines, the boat-operator partners found they were saving fuel and that guests were more respectful. Photo: Meesha Holley

The Indian ocean humpback dolphin Sousa plumbea is a residential species, protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972. It is also classified as Endangered under IUCN’s Red List. Since they live within one to two kilometres of the shoreline and tend to stay within 20 m. depth, it makes sightings relatively easy. Additionally, they are estuarine feeders and are often spotted near river mouths. The frequency of sightings has given rise to a disorganised dolphin-watching industry spread across 100 km. of the Goan coastline. 

In an ideal world, perhaps the best option would be to not watch them at all, and look out for them from the shore, leaving their habitat undisturbed. But life is not that simple, what with livelihoods now so interlinked with the practice. We decided, therefore, to work to help existing practices be more responsible and ethical. 

Dolphin-watching – the Right Way

We have designed an ‘Ocean Biodiversity Experience’. This is a four-hour experience, with no pressure to chase the animals and show them within a 45-minute time frame, which is what regular trips are forced to do. We also take the focus off the dolphin and expand it to include mangroves, pelagic birds and the near-shore marine habitat so that visitors come away with a holistic understanding of these ecosystems. We follow the best practice international guidelines, including switching off our boat in the presence of dolphins, forbidding chasing or coralling, we move at slow speeds parallel to the animals and never cutting across their path of travel. 

Our team guides the trip in collaboration with boat operators and every trip begins with a knowledge presentation about the humpback dolphin and associated marine wildlife, so that guests’ expectations are in keeping with ethical watching. We never guarantee sightings. We have also increased the price from the general $4 (Rs. 300) at which dolphin trips are currently offered across Goa. Low prices undervalue the privilege of being able to sight dolphins close to shore and barely covers the costs of the trips, especially now with rising fuel costs. This is what forces most operators to add unsavoury add-ons such as alcohol, dancing and high-speed thrills. It also pushes them to do a high volume of trips, with boats going out daily for the six months of a season, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

At times, as many as 40 to 60 boats may be out chasing the animals. By contrast, we charge $34 (Rs. 2,500) per person, in keeping with the international valuation of whale and dolphin watching excursions and ensure an experience that is safe, knowledge-driven, community-based and conservation-oriented. Within a season, our boat operator partners said they were saving fuel, earning more and being more respected by guests. The knowledge-building sessions we have designed enable operators to confidently engage guests at an ecological and conservation level. Hydrophones (used by ecologists for bio-acoustic studies)on board provides an opportunity for them to hear sounds made by fish and other animals, including picking up engine noise of approaching boats. All this has enhanced the marine experience for visitors, enabling us to plant conservation seeds in their minds. 

We do not restrict our collaboration with boat operators to a few cursory interactions. We also ensure continuous engagement with our boat partners to build their capacity to offer holistic, knowledge-driven, ethical experiences. We have also installed signage on the jetty, that outline responsible-tourism practices with information on key species likely to be seen. We promote the ethical operators through social media and print and this attracts clientele from the growing conscious-travel market. 

Working with the System

Another social impact programme – a Marine Wildlife Stranding Response Network – we run involves the Goa Forest Department and Drishti Marine (lifeguard services), a private company working on Goa’s beaches as part of a collaborative Marine Stranding Response and Monitoring Network. We piloted this programme in June 2017, and with support from IUCN-India, Mangroves For Future programme, we trained 600 lifeguards who are distributed amongst the 38 beaches of Goa. Currently, 60 Forest Department personnel have also been oriented on cetacean and sea turtle stranding responses. Additionally, vets from the Animal Husbandry Department were taught how to treat injured sea turtles and conduct necropsies for cetaceans and turtles. 

The Terra Conscious team has trained Drishti Marine lifeguards, the Forest Departement, veterinarians and volunteers. This helped them pull off an incredible, collaborative rescue of a stranded striped dolphin in Miramar in September 2018.  Photo: Mallika Talwar and Justine Calais

In one year of monitoring, we received reports of 114 stranding incidents from across the state, of which 36 involved cetaceans and the rest were sea turtles. The causes of such strandings could be trawling, drift nets, natural causes, diseases or boat-traffic stress. However, at present, more studies are needed to establish the causes for the strandings in Goa. 

We recently established a Responsible Tourism Collective as well, to bring together different socially responsible tourism practitioners from across the state together on the issue of ethical tourism.

The bottom line is that local communities are key to the success of any conservation action, especially in marine and coastal spaces, which are difficult to regulate. When development is inclusive and bottom-up, it has a better chance of being aligned to what people want and need. This way collaborative community action can effectively protect natural ecosystems and biodiversity, on which our future depends.

Author: Puja Mitra

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