Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Don’t let fake news steal the habitat of our dolphins

To be able to observe dolphins from one’s balcony is not a possibility for most in Mumbai, which may explain why video grabs of these beauties caused such a stir on social media. There must have been a time when Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphins (Sousa plumbea) roamed this coastal stretch in large numbers. Today, they are scattered in small pockets, one of which is the bay off Raj Bhavan, Malabar Hill. Other city locations where these dolphins are seen include Worli, off Chowpatty in South Mumbai, Marine Drive, Sassoon Docks, and Alibaug. When we were young, we used to see them often; then we forgot about them; and now, I seem addicted to sightings, perhaps just to see they are still here, trying their best to still call Mumbai their home. Over the last three years, I have been observing these humpback dolphins in the shallow waters of the bay overlooking Raj Bhavan, or the Governor’s House off Malabar Hill. They make their presence felt late in the month of December till the onset of the monsoon. Documentation shows that dolphins use this space for foraging and socializing. We have seen a dolphin pod cooperatively foraging and chasing fish just under the water’s surface, an adult and calf foraging together, and also intense socializing activity, mating chases, etc., in these waters. The dolphins are highly acrobatic. They go breaching, spy hopping and porpoising, a sign of how relaxed they are in these waters. Often, cooperative foraging involves chasing a school of fish towards the shore and then catching the fish underwater as they get trapped against the sand. Over two years, the pod I spoke of has grown from 2-3 individuals to about 12. I hope the population keeps growing and reclaims the coastal waters of Mumbai.

I am told by Dipani Sutaria, an ecologist studying cetaceans (aquatic mammals) for the last 20 years, that these highly intelligent dolphins prefer shallow waters and estuaries as habitats, usually less than 20 metres depth. They are clever, and often manage to extract fish from the gill nets and purse seines cast by local fishermen.

Indian Ocean humpback dolphins are social delphinids (oceanic dolphins) that live in groups averaging 12 individuals, although group size can vary widely. Most of their diet is composed of sciaenid fishes, cephalopods, and crustaceans. Being near-shore cetaceans, living in such close proximity to coastal development that they suffer its repercussions, they experience high rates of mortality due to anthropogenic disturbances. The threats include fisheries entanglement, environmental pollution, habitat loss and noise pollution. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as globally endangered, and the Indian government has listed the species in appendices I and II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). It is listed in the first as this species has been categorized as being in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant proportion of its range, and all CMS parties must strive to protect these animals. It is listed in appendix II as it has an unfavourable conservation status, or would benefit significantly from global cooperation.

Unfortunately, the area where I see these dolphins almost everyday, living freely in the wild, is where the Maharashtra government wishes to erect a 200m high statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, a 17th century ruler of the Maratha Empire. The project includes “reclaiming" 16 hectares of the sea, all this just 1.6km off the coast of Raj Bhavan and 3.6km from Chowpatty, at a project cost of over 3,000 crore. The idea that humans can steal space from the sea and call it “reclaiming" amuses me. The sea belongs to those who have evolved to live in it. Marine mammals have evolved over thousands of years to breathe air like us, but eat, mate, give birth and die in the sea. It is they who must reclaim the sea and the coasts from us. Near-shore waters are nursery grounds for most fish, including sharks and rays. At least three species of cetaceans use only near-shore waters: finless porpoises, humpback dolphins and Bryde’s whales. If the statue goes ahead, it will not only negate the intertidal richness of Mumbai’s shoreline and threaten sea snakes, pelagic birds, turtles and coral reefs, but also affect the future of people who need thriving marine life at their doorstep. It has been shown that biodiversity in urban areas has a positive correlation with one’s mental well-being.

Sadly, too many of us presume ownership of all we see. In April 2020, during the covid lockdown, videos and photographs of these dolphins that I had taken were widely shared on social media platforms, various news channels and websites without my permission. No credit was given to me. Worse, the information shared along with the clippings was inaccurate, giving large numbers the wrong impression that these dolphin sightings were the result of the lockdown. This was untrue. Branding these fine dolphins as “visitors" hurts the cause of saving their habitat. An effort to trace the origin of those images, if only to honour their copyright, could have prevented the wave of fake news they set off online.

Darshan Khatau is head, fund raising and investor relations, First Eagle Capital Advisors, and a wildlife enthusiast

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