Coast to coast: stories from the Arabian Sea

An ecologist chases the song of the humpbacked whale along India’s west coast—and packs in some shark research as well


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

When people ask me “what are you doing these days?”, I try and avoid answering. If they persist, I tell them I am in search of a beautiful lonely humpback whale singing to lure a mate. I am searching for them in waters where fishermen from India and Pakistan have to face the wrath of their own and the other’s security forces every day. This is where the Indus system pours nutrient-rich waters into the Arabian Sea, where the whales sing in deep longing, where fisherfolk risk their lives in the hope of a catch. This is where the Yamuna and Sutlej once fed the rich Ghaggar-Hakra river flowing into the Arabian Sea and made all those who lived by its banks affluent for almost 1,400 years in the early to middle Holocene (3,000 BC-1,600 BC). When I speak to the fisherfolk, I feel their lives resonate with those of the whales’.

The whales follow no international political boundaries. No government, non-governmental organization or funding agency owns them. The fishermen wish that waters across political borders were as safe for them. I wish the same too, as long as the areas where large river systems enter the sea are managed jointly to sustain a functioning ecosystem.

When fisherfolk cannot easily reach the lands of the whales, who am I? So I trot along the coast, from Lakhpat and Jakhau in Gujarat to Goa in the south, meeting people and interviewing any seafaring person interested in my research for the International Whaling Commission, playing songs of whales in the hope that some day, somewhere, I will hear of a singing male. They are my primary sources of information for the elusive whales.

The endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale lives in the continental shelf from Yemen to western India. They can be seen as close as 500m from a beach, and if you are lucky, a chap might want to expose his belly right next to your boat and look at you, like one did when we were helping with a satellite-tagging programme near Hasik, in the Dhofar province of south Oman. The mountains of Dhofar are geological treasures, holding evidence of first life in the form of stromatolites that existed more than 700 million years ago. I was there with a group of international whale researchers in February 2014, thanks to the non-profit Environment Society of Oman, with support from Renaissance Services SAOG.

Humpback whales have been studied along the coast of Oman for 17 years. Their songs have been recorded with the help of underwater acoustic devices and individuals have been identified through photo-identification of fins and flukes, showing that most of the 80-odd whales there stay along the Oman coast throughout the year. During our search for these whales, we filled our days by camping on the beach, bathing at sunset in little pools left behind as the tide recedes, brewing strong Arabica at 5am in our makeshift open-air kitchen between a pile of boulders. There were two teams: one on the water, where an expert whale tagger would work with the support crew; and another on land, on the lookout for whales from clifftops. Getting to our location atop the cliffs meant a hike up the wadis with beautiful limestone formations tinged with granite, surrounded by Frankincense trees and beautiful little succulents.

"The search for them Humpies, as we whale-obsessed call them, is not as easy in Indian waters. Hunters caught most of our whales (175-180 humpback whales) along the Indian continental shelf in the mid-1960s, mainly off the coast of Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat. So yes, we are searching for a needle in a haystack."-

The satellite-tagging programme (2014-16) of the Environment Society of Oman showed seasonal movements (most of the whales move between hot spots in the Hallaniyat Bay and Gulf of Masirah) and behaviour changes that are related to regional infrastructure development and shipping traffic.

The memories are precious. The enormous red-and-ochre mountains hanging over the intense aquamarine waters; the days filled with humpback whales, common dolphins and humpback dolphins; lucky sightings of schools of devil rays flying, leaping through the water together—it all made my experience with the humpback whale research team in Hasik one I would want to relive and create here in India.

***

The search for them Humpies, as we whale-obsessed call them, is not as easy in Indian waters. Hunters caught most of our whales (175-180 humpback whales) along the Indian continental shelf in the mid-1960s, mainly off the coast of Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat. So yes, we are searching for a needle in a haystack. But there is proof there are a few around—when the Indian Coast Guard shared its images of a sighting way back in 2006; or fishermen off Veraval showed pictures of the whale they had disentangled and released from a fishing net in 2008.

The seafaring people of Kutch respect the whales because of their sheer size, describing them as machchh or machchh raja. A description of a sighting almost always starts with the observation of a tall spout of water in the distance; the captain of the boat will then break a coconut in respect and will try to avoid disturbing the whale by approaching.

The whales have been seen foraging outside Kori Creek, but in recent years the sightings have decreased. Someday I want to be on the boat in the seas outside Kori, I tell myself.

Desperate to be on the water, we went down to Goa recently with our hydrophone, hoping to get lucky. For if the whales are on the western continental shelf, and if blue whales and Bryde’s whales are reported every year from the west coast, especially coastal Maharashtra, then why not humpbacks?

Wherever we do surveys, we involve not only fishing communities, but also the staff at scuba-diving centres and cargo-vessel crews, convincing them to collect any opportunistic data they can while on the waters. We finally got lucky on 22 March. Scuba-diving centre Dive Goa’s founder Ajey Patil recorded a singing humpback whale—usually, a singing male is indicative of possible breeding grounds. The whale sang off Grande Island in Goa for two days and then disappeared. This is the first recording of a humpback whale from coastal waters in the north-eastern Arabian Sea. The vocalizations recorded from Goa had two different phrase types being repeated quite a few times (a typical song has anywhere from four-eight different phrase types, with many repetitions of each). Comparing humpback songs from Goa and Oman can tell if these individuals are all part of one population or not.

We don’t know where this singing male has gone…but I hope he has found a mate so that their lot can continue ruling the seas. For now, we can only savour the knowledge of his presence.

***

On a spring day in March 2014, as we returned from a successful day on the waters off the coast of Puducherry, having spotted spinner dolphins and bottlenose dolphins, we chanced upon a catch of sharks. Dead sharks. Another boat pulled into the harbour along with us. It had 13 pelagic thresher sharks, all more than 2m long. We rushed towards them, imagining the immense beauty of this group swimming together in the sea. There were seven females and six males.

My mind was racing with questions. Do males and females live together in groups? Or do males and females come in search of each other to these waters? Were the females already gravid? I had no time to check. The sharks were being weighed and packed off.

This is not very common, said my fisherman friend. Nobody knew how much the sharks would fetch. It had been a chance sighting. And as it tends to happen, shark-related discussions entered my academic life, and we finally decided to start discovering them ourselves, in the Arabian Sea.

We focused our shark research (funded by the Save Our Seas Foundation) in Porbandar. It’s a rather strange little city but it has a beautiful beach where, come the right season, one can see green and olive ridley turtles bobbing their heads under the waves, waiting for the right moment to nest. Our fish-landing site visits to Porbandar required us to wear knee-height gumboots so that we wouldn’t sink into the layers of fish-goo mush. There was nothing glamorous about our journeys, by bus, scooter or rickshaw.

But we were there to start a research project to assess the diversity, sex ratios, size classes and maturity of sharks that land, so that we could perhaps attempt to answer questions about which species breed close to Gujarat, which species give birth and leave, and what economical or gastronomical value sharks and rays had for the local fishing community. We found that locals liked to eat only small-sized sharks, such as the grey sharpnose sharks and spadenose sharks, and the young ones of more vulnerable species like scalloped hammerhead sharks and common blacktip sharks.

Discussions with the community on how to check the overfishing of these top predators would often be impromptu. Many fishermen had observed that the diversity, sizes and number of sharks being caught was decreasing, and some even suggested changes in types of gear to use to mitigate this drastic fall in catch. Alas, the overfishing issue is industrial; it is complex—given the fuzzy and mismatched fisheries and wildlife conservation laws that leave our coastal waters and deep seas over-exploited, and given that the livelihoods of tens of thousands of stakeholders across gender, castes and communities are involved here.

We have more than 70 species of sharks in Indian waters—we found 20 of these during our work, one of which was recorded for the first time in India (the sandbar shark, recorded in 2015). Our data shows that sharks are caught all through the year. In some species, only neonates or yearlings landed, in other species all different life stages were found. Given the assortment of sharks we witnessed every day, I would often assign them their own mood; anything to lighten the atmosphere of death that surrounded our work.

For me, a snaggletooth shark is really as bizarre as it sounds, with so many teeth that you want to remove a few so that it can close its mouth; the bull shark always looked grumpy and irritated, while the blacktip shark and the graceful shark looked dignified, and the scalloped hammerhead shark looked like it could lose its balance any time. One cannot help but wonder why evolution gave them the hammer with eyes at the tips, or why the sawfish is so badly designed for present times—a sea full of nets in which its saw-shaped head easily gets entangled in. In fact, it was to magnify their electroreception capacity, to capture and stun prey, and to defend themselves against predators while they sweep the sea floor solitarily at night.

The immense diversity of sharks and rays (Chondrichthyans) in the seas is cause for celebration. It is proof of how much our seas can offer, hold and bring forth. Sadly, overfishing, using trawlers, gill nets, longlines with hooks and purse seines, is decimating sharks and rays in Gujarat. Some species are eaten locally, others are frozen and transported to places where the meat is savoured dry, while yet others are valued only for their fins, with the rest of the body turned into fertilizer.

We will continue our work on whales and sharks, involving divers, fisherfolk, research groups and local NGOs in the hope of building a research and monitoring programme along the coast. For the next few years, these journeys along coastal Gujarat will continue. It is like a call from the ancient seas that once existed where the dry desert of Kutch is now (the Tethys Ocean was present here till our piece of land decided to move north, twist itself upside down and merge into the land mass above). The desert here is rich in marine fossils, of creatures once immersed in shallow seas. It was here, in the Indo-Pakistan belt, between the Himalayas and Kutch, that the ancestors of all extant cetaceans (whales and dolphins) first entered the sea—mammals that returned from land to water 50 million years ago, in the early Eocene. It is from this special Indo-Pakistan region that cetaceans spread to the rest of the world.

The fossils of whale ancestors such as Indohyus, Pakicetus, Ambulocetus and Kutchicetus, found here, show the evolutionary and ecological importance of this area. When I think about this, I smile at how little humans matter to the way the planet functions. This gives me hope.

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