A routine fishing trip leads to a close encounter of the Cetacean kind.
It was on a cool moonlit night, that my friends and I decided to take advantage of the calm winter seas to go fishing. As the old diesel boat chugged along Sand Spit and Hawkes’ Bay towards Churna Island, I wrapped myself in a blanket and settled myself on the rear of our boat with a hot cup of tea in hand. As I was drifting off, I saw some movement in the water. It was swift, much different from the splashing of the King Mackerel (Surmai) and yet much too pronounced to be a figment of my imagination. I thought it to be the wake of some boat, but none had crossed us.
As the mysterious movement on the waves turned the atmosphere eerie, my mind went over the possible explanations and I started reciting a few prayers, just in case. As if in answer to my supplications, I caught sight of two dorsal fins breaking the water. For all I knew, the fins could have been that of sharks, which in fact do prowl these waters and are called “Magra” by the local fishermen, but the movements were too smooth. Suddenly, realisation hit me! it was the signature rise and dip attributed to dolphins! Hardly creating any sound or splash, they escorted our boat for a while, until finally getting bored and disappearing. To this day, I do not recall how many fish, if any, I caught on that trip but my first interaction — if you can call it that — with wild dolphins was a start of a lifelong interest.
Dolphins belong to the Cetacean order, which comprises of a large portion of sea mammals. Contrary to popular belief, Pakistani waters are not only frequented by many types of Cetaceans but some of them are actually permanent residents! The most recognisable Cetacean from Pakistan is undoubtedly the Indus Blind Dolphin, often nominated as the mascot for various sports teams hailing from the province of Sindh. While little is known about other cetaceans in Pakistan, various species of dolphins, whales and porpoises gently cruise along the Makran Coast all the way to Oman across the Persian Gulf and also patrol the Indus Delta region leisurely.
Since that fateful night, I have had the good fortune of observing dolphins and other cetaceans on various occasions. They are sometimes visible from atop Fort Manora, right next to the breakwater of Karachi harbour. This always surprises me as I would not expect them to come so close to the hustle bustle and polluted waters of Karachi harbour. If one is lucky, they can be sighted from land at the Kund Malir beach and the fish market on the Makran Coastal Highway. Once, when my friend and I went for a swim to Kund Malir beach, we soon found ourselves in the company of a school of dolphins playing around at a distance. They were probably chasing a shoal of “Bangra” (a small variety of Mackerel). After a brief flirtation we decided to let them enjoy their frolicking and left with broad smiles.
My most recent encounter with these graceful creatures was on a self-organised Dolphin Safari from the village of Damb near Sonmiani in Baluchistan, approximately 80 kilometres from Karachi. More than an hour into our boat ride, we did not see any dolphins except one and which only I had spotted. This did not count much as I was the tour guide and what really mattered was that the others could spot a few. The dolphin had dipped and refused to surface until we had passed the area. I felt a little guilty that the dolphin-viewing trip might end without seeing any dolphins but everyone else didn’t seem to care as they were quite awed by the other spectacles on offer.
There were plenty of seagulls flying around, with an occasional one bobbing lazily on the water. Common Terns, exhibited their aerial acrobatics and spectacular diving skills as they folded back their wings just before hitting the water in order to dive deeper. There were hordes of sandpipers on the shores picking up their treats and a formation of Pelicans circled above like a squadron of sea-planes in search for a place to land. All these sights and sounds combined with the beauty of the huge lagoon and its sandy shores were nothing short of a Nat-Geo-like experience for us city slickers but the elusive dolphins were what I sought.
We were told by the boatman that the dearth of dolphins was due to the high wind which was present that day. The evident dust storm being whipped up from the far end of the shores of Miani Hor out to the open sea supported this theory. Resigned to our fate, we decided to head back to the jetty reluctantly but on the way back we took a different route, one passing through deeper waters. Soon, someone spotted a splash. “A Dolphin!”, one of the kids shouted, “There’s another one!”, someone else exclaimed. Soon we could see pods of four or more, surfacing quite frequently. The excitement for the first-time audience was a sight to behold. Each glimpse of the shy mammals that day was applauded and cheered by our party — grown-ups and children alike. The older kids kept shouting greetings to the dolphins while jumping and waving their hands in the air and my son, not yet two, decided to emulate the dolphins by trying to dive into the sea! Not even Shahid Afridi, then captain of the “Karachi Dolphins”, would ever have had such a noisier audience.
To use a cliché, all good things must come to an end, and so did this little trip. However, the experience was thoroughly enjoyed by young and old alike and fond memories were created that day. The enthusiasm of the children to learn more about the sea and its creatures was the greatest achievement of the visit.
Mankind has destroyed much of what nature had bestowed on us. Flora and fauna have been particularly hurt by man’s exploitation of his environment. Until now, Dolphins and other cetaceans have enjoyed themselves in Pakistani waters. Being mammals, they are considered Haram (prohibited) by most Muslims and thus not hunted. However, habitat destruction, pollution and over-fishing of their food source, is now contributing towards their decreasing numbers. Each new development which disregards its impact on environment and wildlife causes the extinction of more and more species.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 11th, 2012.
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