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|Goa - a Scientific approach to conserving its marine mammal diversity |
by Dipani Sutaria
Dept of Marine Biology, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, North Dartmouth, MA, USA
Marine Mammals recorded off the West coast of India
I started my work aiming to initiate a marine mammal research program in India and setting up a network along the coast to report dead animals and live standings. We hear of stranding networks all over the world where animals, lost or stranded due to low waters are kept alive and released back to sea. We need to start one in India, and Goa is a good place to start from, where local NGO's can attract tourists for conservation issues.
I spent the first few days in Goa, acclimatizing myself to the place and forming contacts so that I could find a place to stay and a boat to use. I visited the fishing colony at Dona Paula and took the local dolphin watching cruises from Calangute and Dona Paula for my pilot surveys. By the end of the first week The Goa Yachting Association informed me that they would be happy to rent out their sailboat, The Sea Bird for my work and therein started my life for the next 2 months. Along with Jaidas and Haridas, my boatmen from GYA and my assistants Coralie D'Lima, Narotam Manger and Kunal Condillac, enterprising students from St. Xaviers College, Mumbai, we surveyed the coast from Terekhol to Betul at least three times. I covered the region from Betul to Malshem with the help of Mr. and Mrs. Dominique Fernandes from Alpha restaurant Palolem and their boatman with his supply of fresh coconuts.
We divided the coast into 2-2.5-mile blocks and surveyed approximately 1-mile offshore, moving parallel to the coast and in a zigzag manner outwards. Each block was given a number and 20 such blocks were covered uniformly. The path followed is called a transect and is a standard path followed every time during repeats (Fig. 1). We made use of a handheld Garmin GPS (Geographical positioning system) to keep us on track, which works by orbiting satellites triangulating on our position.
Every time a group of animals was encountered, we took down data regarding species, group size, distance from the boat, angle of sighting, and time of the day, GPS location and sea condition. We approached the group after slowing down the engine and tried to photograph the dorsal fin of every individual from the group. Natural marks-blotches, cuts and nicks on the dorsal fin are used as finger prints to identify individuals in marine mammal research and I employed the same technique here.
Species diversity and occurrence:
We encountered two species of cetaceans along the coast of Goa, the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin and the Finless porpoise.
The Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins are mainly coastal and are found in tropical and subtropical regions of South and South East Asia. Gray in colour with pink patches they have a hump behind the dorsal fin for which they are given the name. The size of the hump and the coloration varies with regions, sex and age and is an issue that is being researched by scientists.
We sighted these dolphins all along the coast of Goa in groups of 1-40 individuals. These animals were observed travelling in the north south direction along the coast and were highly social. We located no less than two groups that were always found in a given area.
Finless Porpoises are very shy animals. These are also found in tropical and sub tropical coastal regions of South and South East Asia and are black to gray in colour. As their name suggests, they have no dorsal fin and are not gregarious. They are difficult to photograph as they do not surface high out of the water and are very fast. We sighted these dolphins twice in two months. Each of these sightings was in different areas with a gap of 45 days. They were in spread-out groups of 6-7 individuals and porpoises were sighted only when sea conditions were glassy.
It should be noted that Finless Porpoises and Indo-Pacific Humpbacks were never sighted together in the same area.
In the two months we spent in Goa, we found two carcasses. Both were of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. One was a natural death, while the second was a young one, which was killed by a propeller injury or was caught in a trawler net and was cut off the net. The ship and trawler traffic is quite high in areas like Vasco and the people concerned need to be a little more aware of the dolphins. The dolphin watching cruises along the coasts are doing a good job, but they could do even better, if they had a naturalist aboard talking to the tourist and giving them information about the dolphin's habits.
Dolphins are social animals. They form their own societies and have a brain size comparable to humans. They often approach boats due to curiosity, a purely animal instinct. They do not like being approached and petted and certainly do not wish to swim with humans. Many myths have been connected to these animals but one has to respect the fact that they should not be bothered. The boats should approach animals at low speeds and parallel to them. These animals have a very sensitive hearing mechanism and noise pollution is a major threat to cetaceans worldwide. One universal fact is that in the natural world, nothing comes by force; one has to wait for the animals to approach the boat, for their safety and better sightings.
It was a wonderful two months in Goa and we observed a range of behaviors - petting, aggression, feeding, travelling, porpoising. Further work could include small projects like studying feeding habits and common feeding grounds, relating depth to habitat use, studying behavior, group composition and group stability, studying the reproductive biology of the population, studying demographics and population dynamics of the population, setting up a stranding network to keep track of mortality rates and reasons of mortality, relating water quality to density of animals in an area…
There are endless research projects that can be taken up by the local NGO's and university students in Goa.
A fun place, an enjoyable and responsible piece of work, a little bit of enthusiasm and an urge to protect your marine environment- You will see and do things that people can only dream of.
Note: The author is analyzing her data at the moment and can be contacted at email@example.com for further information.