Humbling Encounters at Sea

The hardship behind the fish on our plates.

By Arafat Rahman Khan
January 27, 2019

[Note: This is the third blog in a series about the Bangladesh Marine Megafauna Survey being conducted by the WCS Bangladesh Program. You can read the first two pieces on our WCS Marine Conservation Program page.]

I never dreamed that one day I would be searching for dolphins in the seemingly endless Bay of Bengal. Such opportunities felt beyond my reach. But having worked as an intern with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on several occasions during the past two years, I was selected as a team member for their annual marine megafauna survey and fisheries investigation. My life was about to change.

We started our journey after two intensive days of training. It took no time to become acquainted with the other team members on our two survey vessels. Kalimullah, our genius mechanic, and Sobhan, our amazing cook, are among the funniest guys I have ever met. Over the coming three weeks, we grew close like family. Despite rough seas and repeated engine trouble, the team spirit and companionship on board are among my most memorable experiences.

On December 19, I awoke in the Sundarbans, the mangrove forest of exceptional ecological importance to our country. While enjoying my breakfast and watching fishermen pass by in their small dinghies, I was struck by the scenic beauty of the tidal forest. Brahminy kites circled overhead and brightly colored kingfishers flashed by. My anticipation for finally getting out to the Bay of Bengal was momentarily paused by the spectacular beauty of these mangroves straddling the land and sea.

Based on previous surveys by WCS, the submarine canyon and estuarine waters off the Sundarbans had been declared by the Government of Bangladesh as our first marine protected area. ©WCS Bangladesh

By midafternoon, we reached the Swatch-of-No-Ground, a deep underwater canyon located 30 miles (50 km) offshore from the Sundarbans. I have often talked to people about the amazing diversity and abundance of marine wildlife WCS discovered living in this submarine canyon. When asked if I had actually been there, I felt ashamed to say that I hadn’t. So when our boat passed over the line where the water changes from jade green to deep blue, another dream of mine came true. My eyes filled with tears, my heart with happiness and joy.

As an observer on duty, I scanned the water through binoculars for signs of marine wildlife. Startled by a sudden call from our captain, I caught sight of a bottlenose dolphin leaping out of the water. It was my first sighting of a bottlenose, one of seven dolphin species known to occur in the Swatch-of-No-Ground. Our boat approached the group of over 100 dolphins. Several came to ride our bow. I knew this area was important for dolphins, whales, and porpoises (also known as cetaceans). I also knew that, based on previous surveys conducted by WCS, the submarine canyon and estuarine waters off the Sundarbans had been declared by the Government of Bangladesh as our first marine protected area. But it is an entirely different story to be there surrounded by these graceful swimmers.

“Night after night, I marveled at the stars sparkling across a seemingly endless night sky.” ©WCS Bangladesh

Amazing sights were not limited to daylight hours. Night after night, I marveled at the stars sparkling across a seemingly endless night sky. After dark, the water came alive with bioluminescent dinoflagellates, glowing like millions of fireflies in the water. I have never been so aware of the changing moon and its immense power over life at sea.

I spent most days working on the smaller vessel conducting a fisheries investigation. Our responsibility was to document the fishermen’s catches and their fishing practices and interview them about their knowledge and perceptions. One of the perks of being a part of this challenging work included seeing my first live Hilsa shad. Like all my fellow countryfolk, I love to eat our bony yet tasty national fish. But usually Hilsa come iced and several days dead. This was a memorable first for me.

My most valuable insight from of the coastal survey was not the fish but the incredible hard work expended by these fishermen to feed our nation. I had the privilege of encountering the most generous and hospitable people I have ever met. When we approached their boats, they welcomed us on board with a gentle courtesy I’d expect from the concierge of a five-star hotel. Their lives are deprived of every comfort and safety, yet they generously gifted us with their biggest catch of the day despite having little to nothing for themselves. Our gift of tea, biscuits, and sugar seemed like pittance by comparison.

The ocean is ruthless, sometimes calm as a pond while other times wild and terrifying. Without access to reliable weather forecasts, tropical storms often surprise them far from safe anchorage. While our survey leaders check wind and weather conditions almost continuously to ensure the safety of our team, these services are still out of reach for most fishermen in Bangladesh. They risk their lives to feed our nation. The many lives lost in our coastal and marine waters hardly ever make news headlines. No one seems to care about them or worry about their future. When I asked a fisherman if he was ever scared, with a broad smile he replied, “We accept our fate and give our thanks to the Almighty.”

“The incredibly humble fishermen in the coastal waters of Bangladesh who are putting their lives at risk for our country’s food security and economy deserve our deepest respect.” ©WCS Bangladesh

I gained an awareness of the hardship behind the fish on our plates. The incredibly humble fishermen in the coastal waters of Bangladesh who are putting their lives at risk for our country’s food security and economy deserve our deepest respect. Most of the fishers we interviewed welcome regulations to sustain fisheries and spoke in favor of stricter enforcement if fairly applied. All of us must share the responsibility of sustaining the lives and livelihoods of these brave fishermen as well as ensuring the survival of threatened marine wildlife. I have come to understand why WCS Bangladesh is so passionately dedicated to a healthy ocean and healthy people.

All of us must share the responsibility of sustaining the lives and livelihoods of these brave fishermen as well as ensuring the survival of threatened marine wildlife.

The weeks at sea spent with my new family, watching the sun rise, listening to the sound of waves, engaging in inspiring discussions, marveling at the playful grace of our marine wildlife, and witnessing the incredible hardship of our fisherfolk have created lifelong memories. I will forever treasure these precious moments and my appreciation for our nations heroic fishers, whose hearts are as big as our ocean.

[Note: Read the second blog in the series, “Dolphins from Dawn to Dusk,” and the first piece, “Breaking Barriers in the Bay of Bengal.”]

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Arafat Rahman Khan is an intern with the WCS Bangladesh Program.