Dolphins from Dawn to Dusk

An unforgettable birthday.

By Mohammad Shamsuddoha
January 18, 2019

[Note: This is the second blog in a series about the Bangladesh Marine Megafauna Survey being conducted by the WCS Bangladesh Program. You can read the first and about last year’s trip on our WCS Marine Conservation Program page.]

I woke as the sun was rising over the Bay of Bengal. Our survey vessel, F.B. Champa, was anchored 23 miles (37 kms) offshore. The soft dawn light painted the sky in shades of orange and reflected in the splashing waves. The beauty was breathtaking. Even after one week on the water, the colors were overwhelming.

I had never been at sea before, so I was excited from the start of the annual WCS coastal marine megafauna and fisheries survey. Eight days earlier, we had set sail from Khulna in the southwest. During this expedition we are investigating two areas identified during earlier WCS surveys to be particularly important for the conservation of coastal dolphins, porpoises, sharks, rays, and marine turtles.

Every day, we start our daily work between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Team members take their designated positions for the first rotation — three observers stand on the top deck scanning the water for dolphins, while two others record sightings of sea birds, turtles, and fishing operations. The engine slows down to a consistent hum, the track line is set, and we go ‘on effort’.

To survey the water, three observers stand on the top deck scanning dolphins, while two others record sightings of sea birds, turtles, and fishing operations. ©WCS Bangladesh

On this day, it doesn’t take long. Our survey leader and senior researcher Rubaiyat Mansur calls the first sighting within just eight minutes. All of us cheer as an Irrawaddy dolphin surfaces for a brief moment in clear view. A good omen. Within the next few minutes, Nadim spots two dark and sleek finless porpoises off the bow. Another two surface nearby to a second round of cheers.

We record an impressive 14 dolphin and porpoise sightings in the first hour. Our sight streak continues through the next rotation. There’s a friendly competition among observers for the most sightings of the day.

The conditions are in our favor on this one: no fog, small waves, and the sun at our backs. The sighting conditions are so good, in fact, we can spot cryptic or shy porpoises that lack the dorsal fin and a rostrum from more than a mile (2 km) away. We are especially appreciative after facing rough weather from a cyclone passing through the Bay of Bengal.

“Having the opportunity to observe these globally endangered dolphins so close up is something I will be forever grateful for.” ©WCS Bangladesh

A whistle blow signals to end our survey day. The sun sets, painting the sky and water bright red. We gather on the roof to enjoy delicious treats prepared by our caring chef in his tiny, makeshift kitchen.

At that moment a group of ten Irrawaddy dolphins swims into sight. I lack the words to describe the sensation of watching these animals surfacing, exhaling, splashing with their tails, and chasing each other. Having the opportunity to observe these globally endangered dolphins so close up is something I will be forever grateful for. It has reaffirmed my dedication to conserving these and other threatened animals that bring our ocean to life.

After dark, we enter data collected during the day. Today’s total of 67 dolphin and porpoise sightings is a new record for our WCS Bangladesh Program. Rubaiyat explains that both of these species share a preference for shallow, murky waters where rivers meet with the sea.

The waters around Nijhum Dwip are primary habitat for these globally threatened species due to favorable ecological conditions. WCS surveys have shown that the density of both Irrawaddy dolphins and finless porpoises, whose populations are declining in other areas across their range, are highest right here.

WCS surveys have shown that the density of both Irrawaddy dolphins and finless porpoises, whose populations are declining in other areas across their range, are highest right here.

That’s why WCS is assisting the Government of Bangladesh in preparing to secure the waters around Nijhum Dwip as a marine protected area. This would benefit not only these marine mammals, but also the astounding diversity of threatened sharks and rays that our fisheries investigations have recorded in the same area.

It fills me with pride to be working with such a dedicated group of researchers and conservationists to ensure that the amazement I experienced today can be shared by future generations.

It just so happens that today is my birthday. The survey team surprised me with a song and a cake with candles after dinner. It was a day of happiness with dolphins and good friends in the Bay of Bengal.

[Note: Read the first blog in the series, “Breaking Barriers in Bengal.” and the third piece, “Humbling Encounters at Sea.”]

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Mohammad Shamsuddoha is the WCS Bangladesh Marine Megafauna Program Officer.