The life of the deeps is unique. Satpada is located at the opening of the Chilika into the Bay of Bengal, expanding through Southern Odisha into Berhampore, Balugaon, and Rambha. Some 200-300 Orcella Brevirostris (biological name of the Irawaddy dolphin) live in this zone.
People live, breathe, eat, and drink the Chilika — for them it is not only a livelihood,but also their life, and their culture. The day begins with a homage to Kalijayee, the human-goddess figure, the deity that fishermen worship in Chilika (possibly will narrate the story of Kalijayee in some future post).
Eventually, the fishing day begins and continues late into the evening. There are thousands of small islands inside the Bay of Bengal.The jetty gets busy by 6.30 AM, when people venture into the waters with the blaring of the first horn of the boat siren. People travel from the jetty across Satpada to islands like Parikud every morning. Clearly, these islands are not vegetarian hubs. Clamps, Oyesters, Fishes, wait to greet you with the smell of the sea.
If you are interested in fish-food, then you may like to try those small motel huts in some of the islands where a nolia (fisherman) might welcome you to the delicacy of a fresh catch of fishes or jhinga.
Fishing is like subsistence farming in these islands and the entire livelihood, food-habits, etc is based on fishing.
However, if you observe the ghettos, you will clearly sense the complete breakdown of the conservation mechanism. The entire Chilika and parts of the mohona have been bartered by huge privatized fishing ghettos. Grand motorized fishing boats make noisy entry and exit into the sea, aggressively getting the lions-share of the fishing business. The noise, the sharpness, and the violence of these motorboats destroy the ecosystem of this beautiful natural habitat of the dolphins and birds. There is a difference between fishing in the conventional ways and fishing in the technologically advanced motor boat system — one is for subsistence, while the other for commercialization and semiconscious destruction of nature.
On the first morning of my journey into the deeps, I could not view the dolphins. There was disappointment and doubt that whether these species actually exist or perhaps may have been sighted once or twice to be used as only a brand name to attarct tourists. The boatman Jeetendra promised me to make sure that I will able to see at least once the dolphins during my stay. The Irrawaddy species of dolphins is more threatened by human intervention than by any other threat. Motorboats ferry thousands of tourists every morning into the Chilika. The noise of the engines and the smell of fuel destroy the safe movement of the dolphins across the water-scape. In fact, more than 25 motorboats enter the waterbody and pursue the dolphins into the sea while trying to secure a better view for the tourists. In the process, the dolphins fall prey to continuous human curiosity and activity. They also have to find safe passage within the large expanse of the fishing gheris that act as dangerous traps.
From the second day on, we started to venture out earlier into the water, 5.30 AM for the rest four mornings, so that we manage to observe the dolphins without getting into the race of motorboats. Jeetendra explained to me that the Irrawaddy dolphins live in small groups of seven or eight members, in clearings within the water-scape. They move within certain specified zones of fresh-water and forage for small fishes. The motorboats and the tourist carriers target these zones both for fishing purposes as well as for tourism.
Observing the dolphins makes you feel deeply connected to the organic reality of nature. My third morning in the deeps was even more rewarding. We spotted a group of six large dolphins in the mohona. I was elated. I said to Jeetendra, “see these seem to be so happy and so much involved in their own business”. He smiled and replied with a sadness, “just wait and watch! They will not be happy for long, the motorboats coming in a short-while will make them sad. They will not be able to breathe even”. He was absolutely right. In a while there was a flurry of activities — noise of the engines, shout of the tourists, plastic bottles and gutkha packs on the water — the dolphins kept struggling to remain in a distance — but people kept following them.
If you read the WWF’s (Panda.org) description of the Irrawaddy dolphins, it does not even list Satpada in the list of the natural habitat of these dolphins. The government of Odisha keeps talking of conservation of these dolphins and to make the area a no-noise and safe zone — but the actual picture is very different. You observe the gross inequality of resources and of eco-conservation. On the one hand, large fishing corporations are fearlessly invading the sea and posing threat to the marine ecology of the zone with their huge fishing boats, sharp nets, and hi-tech equipments. On the other hand, are the poor fishermen with small dinghy with small fishing nets, hardly able to get a meager catch of 100 fishes in a day. When laws and persecution come into existence, these poor fishermen fall into the trap. The question is: when we are talking of conservation of marine ecology, where do these subsistence fishermen figure? These people actually live in harmony with the waters being born in these waters, they do not possess individual fishing gheris and they do not have motorboats to disturb the marine ecology. The dolphins in fact fearlessly move around their fishing boats and are worshiped by these poor fishermen as messengers of the gods of the ocean.
My visit to Satpada was an eye-opener. The narration in Iris is still insufficient. It was just an unplanned backpacking trip to the deeps in search of a species of dolphins that Amitav Ghosh has really made popular through his novel. However, when I went there, I realized that there is a need to come back to Satpada with a more determined motive and a longer duration in hand, of course with a DSLR for better photographic clarity.
Before I wind-up , one short anecdote. Satpada is also one of the largest fresh-water pearls culture zone. The ‘Hyderabadi pearls’ that you buy from the market at Rs.200-300 for a single piece, can be found for Rs. 10 at Satpada. This is the place where they are actually cultured. If you want, the fishermen can break the clamp and give you a glimpse of the pearl. The journey into Satpada remains incomplete — five days were just too less. There is more to be written and more to be felt in these silent corners of the earth that remain unknown to the multitude of conservation experts as well as common human beings.
On that note I conclude today’s edition of Iris….A very good evening and take care!
- In Quest of the Deeps: The Irrawaddy DolphinsThrough My Lenses (heteroglot.wordpress.com)