By Neha Simlai
[The is the second blog in a series about the WCS-led marine megafauna survey, which is gathering data on whales, sea turtles, sharks, and other marine species inhabiting the coastal waters of Bangladesh. Data from the effort will identify biologically important locations for future consideration as marine protected areas. Neha Simlai is an international management consultant for WCS’s Bangladesh Program and a research participant in the survey]
On Christmas morning I was sipping a warm cup of tea on a research vessel heading out to sea while thinking about what would happen if something was to go wrong in the middle of mysterious Swatch-of-No-Ground, an offshore canyon that plunges to more than 900 meters in depth. The story goes that an exploration team from the erstwhile East India Company came here to measure the depth and could not find it.
The thought is a little unnerving that, even now, our depth meter flickers at some points throughout the day. It struck me in that moment that all of us on board were each other’s backup and each other’s lifeguard. That is a strangely strong bond to form so quickly with people largely new to each other.
As an Indian with limited experience in Bangladesh, I have found so much love and warmth in every single person on board. There’s Khokhan Sardar, the captain of the larger fishing vessel ‘F.B. Manikjaan.’Then there are Sobhahaan, our ever-smiling cook, and Rubaiyat Mansur, the WCS Country Representative and survey leader.
Along with all the other team and crew members, this groups has been looking out for me – telling me what will make me feel better, making me lime water when required, ensuring that I won’t keel over as I struggle to keep my balance while the boat rolls about.
The profoundness of life is often found in the details that we miss easily. The first thing that struck me was a little ceremony that was conducted as a blessing before we commenced our journey. This was particularly interesting from a cultural perspective since we are in a predominantly Muslim country. Blessing a boat is reminiscent of the old Hindu culture and customs that prevail across the Indian subcontinent and continue to tie us together despite all our political differences.
The other thing that struck me on the boat was the presence of women in the workforce in this part of the world. For centuries, women have struggled in relatively conservative societies like South Asia to create a space for themselves, and right here there are four women on the survey’s two research boats bringing onboard remarkable dedication and an indomitable spirit—both in equal measure.
With most of us just getting used to life and work out at sea, the most common feeling is that of, well, motion sickness. And for most of us, this ‘experience of a lifetime’ has so far been spent realizing that the best medicine is a local tablet to calm the sea-tossed stomach called “joytrip.” I found myself smiling at the name time and again, but I am amazed at its effectiveness.
Both the boats finally crossed a visible line where the turbid murky water—produced the fresh water outflow from Bangladesh’s extensive river system–merges with the clearer blue of the Bay of Bengal on December 23, 2017.
The first official day of the survey proved eventful for all of us, with the highlight being our sighting of a pod of about 30-40 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, smaller cousins of the more familiar common bottlenose dolphin. Data on the number of animals seen along with the times and locations of the encounters will later form the basis of important coastal management decisions and possibly the future creation of marine protected areas.
The dolphins travelled with us, indulging us with a clear view and even a bow ride for almost 30 minutes along the transect, a straight line along which organisms—in this case dolphins—are observed by researchers. Transect methodology can also serve as a basis of abundance estimates if enough data are recorded.
Science aside, I must admit that this sighting was also an instant cure for all the seasickness. I heard our survey team member Hasan Rahman saying, “This is the best birthday present ever!”
In addition to marine mammals, the team also records observations on other species observed during the survey, including the seabirds flying over our heads and landing on drifting debris. With the survey just starting out and the team adapting to each other, our routine, and the sea and sights around us, emotions are surging. But we continue with an important ground rule clearly articulated by Zahangir, the WCS Sundarbans Programme Manager: “We don’t eat any fish that we have not yet ID’d.”
The owner and captain of the smaller fishing vessel ‘F.B. Jobeda’ is Akkas Ali. He is considered a GPS master among his peers thanks to his association with the WCS Fishermen Citizen Science Safety Network over the last few years. During the course of this survey, Akkas Ali, who is also an avid storyteller, has been learning how to use our VHF radios to communicate with other vessels.
With my land-based contributions to effective conservation mostly taking place in closed office spaces, it is often difficult to see the bigger picture of what the organization is doing in the field. This is the first time in my numerous years in conservation that I have managed to see effort, strategic direction, and personal commitment come together so cohesively.
Neha Simlai is an international management consultant for WCS’s Bangladesh Program and a research participant in the Bangladesh Marine Megafauna Survey.
Read all the blogs in WCS’s series on the 2018 Bangladesh Marine Megafauna Survey: