by Ranjini Murali
It’s 4:30 am. I groggily reach out to turn off the alarm. My day has just begun.
Cora and I are not the only ones up so early. Although it is still dark, most of the village is stirring already. In the distance I can hear faint recitals which have been going on through the night. The village is celebrating the anniversary of the temple with ‘Pallas’ – performances which start at around eight and are played out till the wee hours of the morning. We pass the temple on our way to the boat. Some of the villagers call out to us. Everyone knows everyone in this village.
I am in a quaint village called Satpada in Orissa. The village is situated right beside the Chilika Lake which is famous for the beautiful Irrawady dolphins and the tasty tiger prawns. I’m volunteering with Coralie D’lima, a PhD student who is studying Irrawady dolphins. She is studying the behaviour of the dolphins and its relationship with the fishermen. The fishermen believe the dolphins help bring fish to their nets and Coralie is studying this to see if it was true or not.
The sun is well up by the time we are in our boat on the water. Our eyes are peeled for any sign of movement on the perfectly still water. On a day like this, sightings are almost always certain.
No matter how often I go out on the water, the beauty of Chilika always manages to take my breath away. Barrier nets dot the seascape merging as one with their still reflections. Barrier nets, fishing nets fixed into the river bed, are commonly used by the fishermen here.
The nets are arranged in the shape of an arrow, with the idea that the tail of the arrow is in the water current, stopping the fish from swimming straight, instead forcing them to swim along the net until finally they get caught in a trap at the arrow head.
The dolphins sometimes round up the fish and push them against the net, trapping the fish and making it easy for the dolphins to feed. The fish that escape the dolphins end up getting caught in the fishermen’s’ trap. This is why fishermen believe dolphins help them catch their fish.
I look around and a hundred meters away I can make out the distinct shape of a dolphin fin close to a barrier net. As we approach the dolphin, I realise it is ‘Bloated Stomach’. After Bloated Stomach was the first dolphin I saw. A personal favourite, he has an interesting story to tell. A couple of years ago his tail got entangled in a stray rope with a piece of wood attached to it. A fisherman managed to cut off the piece of wood but the rest of his tail remained tightly wound. Maybe as a result of that, his stomach bloated; thus the name.
Bloated Stomach with a rope entwined around its tail
He’s always alone when we see him. Probably because of his deformed tail, he can’t swim very fast. This made him socially isolated from the rest of the dolphins. Bloated Stomach is easy to identify even from a distance. I almost feel like Bloated Stomach knows us. There are times I am sure he is looking right at us.
We stay with Bloated Stomach till he moves away. We take all the readings and continue on our way.
This is a great sighting for us as it gives us more proof that dolphins feed at the barrier net and help the fishermen. Unfortunately, we don’t see any more dolphins and we finish our observations for the day when we reach the Rajhans Island. Close to the island we see women sieving the lagoon waters for prawn seed. They take the prawns from here and grow them in tanks where they have more control over their growth so that they get bigger and more tiger prawns to sell in the markets.
Sometimes we’ve had barbeques on the Rajhans Island and we have even swum in the channel. Not today though. Today, we just break for breakfast and then head back. We’ll be back tomorrow and maybe we’ll see more of our dolphin friends and if we’re very lucky, we may see them performing some very cool feats like jumping and slapping their tails.
Photos: Coralie D’Lima