Dolphin-watching, Karachi, and the fishermen’s lament

PERSONAL POLITICAL article written on Jan 26, 2010, published in The News on Sunday Footloose page Feb 7, as ‘Wild, pure magic of malhars’

Photo by MAHA SARWAR SHAHID, age 13

Beena Sarwar

Out on a fishing boat under a clear blue early morning sky to go dolphin watching, the violence, squabbles and tensions that mark daily life fade into irrelevance – including the recent tensions arising from the Indian Premier League’s refusal to bid for Pakistani cricketers.

We cruise the sparkling azure waters of the Arabian Sea parallel to the lengthy sand spit (imaginatively called ‘Sandspit’) along the Karachi coast. About five kilometres out to sea, we can still clearly see the recreational ‘huts’ that dot Sandspit beach. As we pass another fishing boat, the crews exchange greetings – just as highway truckers and bus drivers do.

An hour later, our first sight of dolphins in the wild is pure magic. They rise out of the water, their fluid movements making them at one with the ocean. True harmony. The magic continues as they dance around our boat, maybe five or six of them. They emerge sometimes on this side and sometimes on that, keeping their distance for the most part but turning up for a few thrilling moments just five metres away. A baby dolphin cavorts with its mother. Bettina, an anthropologist from Kenya who teaches at UC Davis, sees a dolphin with a white spot on its fin.

The project provides local fishermen with some additional income - and relief from the perils of deep sea fishing. Photo: Beena Sarwar

The WWF flyer handed out on the boat lists five species of these intelligent, playful mammals as being found off the Karachi coast – all called ‘malhar’ by the local fishermen (I wonder if their Indian counterparts have a similar word). In an exciting new discovery, two days after our trip, the Cetacean Conservation Pakistan (CCP) on Jan 26 found a ‘new’ species in these waters – a dead female Risso’s dolphin on the beach at Jiwani, Makran Coast.

The Spinner Dolphin (Stenella longirostris) and Common Dolphin (delphinus delphis) that we saw are not quite endangered species but are conservation dependent.

“How do you know where the dolphins will be?” we ask Babar Hussain, the World Wildlife Fund official who accompanied us, as we headed back once the dolphins disappeared from sight.

“We monitor and survey them every day, working with the local community,” he explains. “We identify at which spot they are likely to appear, and at what time. We know that they come here to feed for this one hour, around 9.00 am every day. You just saw the last of them now (around 10.30 am) — they will migrate, and you will not see them until evening. They’ll feed here again next morning, then go away again.” They repeat this pattern only during the winter months, after which they disappear from these waters.

Babar asks the crew, local fishermen, to take us to a fishing spot further out into the ocean, from where Sandspit is just a thin brown line on the horizon. The fishermen show us the markings they use, bobbing on the water, that identify the spot where they left their nets the previous night. One fisherman reaches down from the side of the boat and grabs a slippery silver fish, limp from struggling in the net. He shows it off proudly then flings it into a corner. That’s dinner, say the fishermen, grinning.

Lovingly painted detail on the fishing boat. Photo: beena sarwar

WWF embarked on this tourist project quite recently, working with the local community and enabling the fishermen to earn some extra income. You need to book the tour well in advance – a week or ten days – because the boat is used regularly for fishing. Once it is out in the open sea on an extended fishing trip – a week to two weeks — – it can’t be brought back for a three-four hour dolphin watching tour organised for city folk.

Fishermen going on these extended fishing trips risk not returning. The danger is less from storms, more from the Indian maritime security forces — a risk that Indian fishermen face from Pakistan’s maritime security forces.

Going crabbing in Karachi harbour (not that there are crabs there anymore to catch, cook and eat on the boat as we used to do), a mass of confiscated Indian fishing boats lies rotting on one side. Lakhs of rupees worth of engines, equipment, nets, and catch unaccounted for, quietly sold. It’s probably the same story on the Indian side of the border.

Boys paddle with their slippers on make-shift rafts fashioned from foam and plastic in the serene bay of the fishing village from where the dolphin watching tour starts, past Hawkes Bay. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Each boat confiscated represents a crew of a dozen or so men and boys, some barely into their teens. They left their families to go and earn this precarious living, ending up being treated “literally like prisoners of war” as Mohammad Ali Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum puts it. They are locked up sometimes for years, with no consular or legal access. Occasionally a fisherman dies in ‘enemy’ custody.

I am not particularly bothered about the IPL not bidding for Pakistani cricketers (they make enough money as it is). What concerns me is what the rejection says about the mentality involved – the need to put each other down, puerile tit-for-tat actions (you don’t take our cricketers, we won’t send our kabbadi team), and the continuous assertion of ‘we are better than you’. Until that changes, arrested fishermen and visa violators – and all their family members – will continue to suffer.

Meanwhile, at least the malhar roams free and majestic, oblivious both to man-made borders and tensions and to the ongoing efforts of citizens on both sides to overcome those tensions — including their aman ki asha (dreams of peace).

Note: This is a slightly revised version of my column Personal Political: ‘No IPL angst for this dolphin’ published in monthly Hardnews India, February 2010, (written before I joined the aman ki asha initiative started by Jang Group and Times of India to campaign for peace between the two countries.

One Response

  1. i wanted to go for dolphin sighting in karachi kindly guide me how can i make this trip hope to hear from your soon


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: