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A Problem Upriver

A Problem Upriver

Marine mammal researcher and conservationist, Mihir Sule outlines the massive, collaborative effort that saw a dolphin, stranded in the Amba river, reunited with its pod at sea.

Indo-Pacific Humpbacked dolphins are listed as ‘Near Threatened’ on the IUCN Red List. Photo: Kunal Salunkhe.

We had often heard of dolphins getting stranded upriver in deep water pools, but during our three years of research along the Sindhudurg coast we had never observed the same. So, when Mr. Vasudevan, the Chief Conservator of Forests, Mangrove Cell, called us on the morning of July 2, about an Indo-pacific humpbacked dolphin (IPH) stranded upriver in Nagothane, we knew we were facing a challenge. After calling a few friends and friends of friends we managed to get in touch with Kunal Salunkhe, a local wildlife enthusiast, who was on site. Kunal sent us the location and a few pictures of the dolphin in question. When we mapped the location, we were astounded to find that the animal was 46 km. upstream from the sea mouth, in the Amba river. The preferred habitat of IPH is in shallow, near-shore waters and even though they often come into estuaries following their favourite prey fish, Mullets Mugil sp. and Spotted Scat Scatophagus argus, they are generally limited to the areas of tidal influence. They are also known to utilise the incoming high tide to enter rivers and forage for prey, and then exit with the receding tide. For some reason, this individual had come too far up and was not able to find its way back to the sea.

It was a full moon night and the previous few days had seen good rainfall. The river was flowing high, and the spring tide due to the moon phase probably compounded in bringing the dolphin way further than it intended. When we reached the site at 9 pm, the local fishermen informed us that they had spotted about 4 - 5 more individuals just a little downriver too. Based on this information, we deduced that an entire pod of dolphins may have come in to feed and then gotten disorientated due to the tide or the changing sand bars and banks in the river. Dolphins often rely on echolocation to form ‘sound-maps’ of their surroundings, but coastal waters are a lot less dynamic as compared to a seasonal river in the monsoon.  Thus the animals might have lost their bearings, and this dolphin was stuck in a deep pool with very shallow, rocky patches on both ends.

Assessing this situation, where the dolphin had stranded itself on its own accord, was a rescue necessary? Should we let the pod deal with it naturally or should we interfere? Is intermediation with nature necessary? If yes, how best do we use the resources available? We contemplated these moral and logistical issues. The dolphin had come in on the highest tide of the month, and the tidal amplitude would reduce henceforth for the next fortnight till the neap tide. Then the locals told us about a pod of dolphins that had been stranded at the same location in July of 2013, and had all died as the waters receded around them. On hearing this, we decided we needed to intervene.

We coordinated with the forest department officials and the local fishermen to chalk out a plan. The CCF mangrove cell, the local Deputy Conservator of Forests, Assistant Conservator of Forests and about 30 forest guards represented the Forest Department. However, we were totally dependent on the local fishermen to guide us on the river’s topography, tide and dynamics. They rose to the occasion, and how! We only explained what we needed done, and left the rest to the locals fishermen, who knew this river, its currents and every little rock in its murky waters.

The stranded dolphin is slowly shepherded downriver, back to the sea. Photo: Kunal Salunkhe.

It was 11 p.m. by the time everything came together, and soon, we were on the water in a small rowboat, looking for the dolphin. We tried using torches to spot the marine mammal, but this ended up spooking the animal and pushed it upriver a few times. After much cajoling with boats, and using small-meshed nets to prevent the dolphin moving upstream any further, we started slowly directing the dolphin downstream. The fishermen had timed this to perfection - we started this operation just as the tide was at its peak and by the time we started pushing the dolphin seawards, the tide was receding and the water flowed towards the sea. It was a surreal experience, watching a dolphin from close quarters, surfacing just a few meters away, breaking the glassy calm water that looked like molten metal in the bright moonlight. Soon, all six of the boats from the village were in the water and helping with the rescue effort.  After much fumbling in the dark, at about 2 a.m., we managed to direct the dolphin over the shallowest patch. The fishermen assured us that the river beyond was relatively deeper and that the dolphin would find its way. Tired and happy that we had managed to achieve what we had planned, we set out for Mumbai. Yet, we had a nagging feeling that that was not all. Vasudevan sir even asked as we got into the car, “How sure are you that the dolphin won’t come back upstream?” With a dynamic river, changing banks and 40 odd kilometres more to swim down, we were not at all sure.

The morning tide brought with it a dolphin to the same location. Based on the images Kunal had managed to capture, we assumed that this was probably another individual from the same pod. The CCF Mangrove cell and the RFO Nagothane were coordinating with us in Mumbai, while Kunal was on site, managing the rescue with the Forest Department staff and the local fishermen. We came to the conclusion that if we wanted this rescue to be successful, the dolphin needed to be led all the way to the sea mouth, the whole 46 km.

But the Amba is a tricky river to navigate, even for a small fishing craft. Most fishermen use heavy fiberglass rowboats and have short stretches of the river that they utilise, often bound within rocky shallow patches. What we needed was an inflatable craft with a very shallow draft and an outboard engine. The village panchayat did in fact have an inflatable with an outboard, but the raft was too small for a team of more than three people and the engine had been unused for some eight odd years! At around 10 a.m. we started making calls to find a more suitable vessel. Nothing was working out at such short notice, but by a stroke of luck we got in touch with Mahesh Sanap of Wilder West Adventures. His team operates water sports in the neighbouring Kundalika river, a few kilometres south. He graciously agreed to help, and arrived with a RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat), an outboard motor, four kayaks and his staff.

The team (Kunal and three local wildlifers, two Forest Department officials, two kayakers to relieve the paddlers, Mahesh Sanap on the outboard and four paddlers in the kayaks) was in the water by 1 p.m. on July 3. The rest of the Forest Department team followed by road (that runs almost parallel to the river) providing food and refreshments and much needed moral support. The plan was to urge this dolphin towards the sea while looking for the rest of the pod as they went down the river. This time though, the team did not have any nets. They had to spread out the five crafts to block the dolphin’s path upriver and slap the paddles on the water to create an acoustic barrier. This was easier said than done, as the dolphin sometimes gave the rescuers the slip, going back upstream from underneath as they passed deeper stretches of river.

It took six gruelling hours of gentle nudging to lead the dolphin to the Dharamtar creek. Here the dolphin met with its pod and the team saw them going back to sea. We finally heaved a sigh of relief and cheered through aching arms, for a day well spent. It is not everyday after all that you rescue a stranded dolphin, take it back to its pod and then back to sea!

Author: Mihir Sule

The work of the Konkan Cetacean Research Team is made possible under sanction from the GoI-GEF-UNDP Sindhudurg Project.

 
 
 

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