Unlike their famous marine cousins, they do not jump and spin and frolic. Like superb divers, they leave no splash behind.
One warm mid-March afternoon, I was on the jagged bank-line of the Beas, upstream of the Harike barrage, in Punjab. While researching the Harike wetland for its famed migratory birdlife, one line caught my eye: the Indus River dolphins, that had “gone extinct in India in the 1930s”, had been “discovered” again in the Beas in 2007. The prospect of a sighting was tantalising and so, on a whim, I had driven to the river.
“Have you seen bhulan here?” Bhulan, meaning the “long-lipped one,” is the Punjabi name for the Indus dolphin. Amarjeet Singh, his boat laden with sarkanda grass, docked in front of me. He pointed upstream. “I saw two go that way this morning.”
I clambered into the boat, which carved a wide arc around a reed island and headed into a smooth swathe of deep river. I sat facing upstream, eyes searching the waters for a flash of fin.
The Indus dolphin, Platanista gangetica minor,is one of two subspecies of freshwater dolphins found in the Indian subcontinent. The other, the Gangetic dolphin, Platanista gangetica gangetica, is found in the Ganga-Brahmaputra river basin.
Out of sight
Unlike their famous marine cousins, they do not jump and spin and frolic. River dolphins barely break the surface of the water, arcing out and back in within seconds. This lack of flamboyance means they could well have surfaced beside you, or behind you, while you are scanning the waters ahead. Like superb divers, they leave no splash behind.
Both varieties are blind. Millions of years spent in silty Himalayan melt waters meant the dolphin’s eye lens lost the ability to see, and is now able only to discern the direction of light. It navigates, and finds food and mates, by echolocation. Both varieties are side-swimmers; they live in intensely human-dominated river systems and are highly endangered. They are the top predators in a river preying on small fish.
In the 1870s, river dolphins swam the length of the Indus basin from the delta to the foothills of the Himalayas, across what is now India and Pakistan. This was before any barrages interrupted the Indus. By 1971, 20 dams and barrages punctuated the river and its main tributaries, chopping up the dolphin’s range into 17 sections. By the 1990s, this fragmentation had slashed the dolphin’s range by 80%. Today, the dolphin is found in only five of 16 sections in Pakistan. In India, it probably never went extinct, but is found only in this one section of the Beas, a stretch bookended by a dam and a barrage.
Further upstream from us, the Beas hosted a new batch of river guests. Gharials — fish-eating, long-snouted crocodilians — had been released in the newly declared Beas conservation reserve by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), India, in an attempt to reintroduce this creature into its historic ranges.
Gharials are critically endangered, with an over 80% drop in population in the last decade. The reptiles introduced into the Beas were juveniles that would take a few years to reach breeding age. Once they became old enough to breed, the female would lay her eggs in the sandbars that stripe this silty river. For now, they were not yet strong enough to swim against the current, and thus risked being swept down towards the barrage.
A flash of movement in the water caught my eye. A dark head cleaved the river, leaving a small wake in its trail. I watched till it reached a sandbar and revealed itself — a feral dog, who shook himself free of water and, running across the sand, began tugging at the beached carcass of a cow. Another dog appeared out of nowhere, and the two began to gorge themselves.
I frowned. Feral dogs fording the river to scavenge the nesting grounds of wintering birds and endangered gharials was a sight with dark implications.
Beyond the sandbars, at the far shore, a group of fishers had brought home their catch for the day. This stretch of the Beas is a conservation reserve, where commercial fishing and netting is illegal. When river levels fall, dolphins are drawn to the deepest parts of the river, where the fish abound. So too are fishermen. Accidental ensnaring in fishing nets is another cause of dolphin death.
“River levels are dropping, Singh said, pointing upstream with his chin. “They are not releasing water.” This was the beginning of summer; the previous monsoon had not been good. Farms, towns, and villages were thirsty. Area boatmen told me, some weeks later, that water levels had fallen further by several feet.
A desiccating river is the death knell for dolphins, who love the deep and need at least a couple of metres of water to thrive. A study by leading cetacean researcher Gill Braulik showed that low dry-season discharge in rivers due to upstream diversions and impoundment by dams was the main reason for the declining range of the Indus dolphin.
This is not peculiar to the Beas or the Indus. Two summers ago, I’d witnessed historically low levels in the Ganga. That river system has an added issue: dredging for waterways. Dredging adversely affects dolphins who rely solely on echolocation. A recent survey in that stretch of the Ganga shows a consequent drop in the population of the Gangetic dolphin.
Slick of water
“There!” yelled Singh, pointing behind me. I whirled around, too late — there was only a ripple where a dolphin had surfaced seconds earlier. Like the Iñupiaq “qala”, or a “slick of flat water”, that follows the submergence of a whale, an oval hush of ripples is the signature of the river dolphin.
I counted down 90 seconds, the average time a river dolphin stays under water before coming up for air… 3 … 2… 1…
On cue, not 20 yards away, a curved snout broke the surface, pointing at the sky. My first sighting was a female. The lady disappeared underwater, and about 90 seconds later, resurfaced with a youngster in tow. A dolphin and calf — for an hour, I watched in utter rapture. There were only a few Indus dolphins in India — and two of the few were putting on an exclusive show for me.
Dolphin sightings are addictive — there is something about the cetacean, even the introverted riverine version, that calls deeply to something within us. I returned the next day, and again the next. And my luck held — sometimes I saw the mother and calf, sometimes a male.
In May 2018, the World Wildlife Fund India carried out the first ever census of the Indus dolphin on this stretch of the Beas, and concluded that between five and 11 individuals, a breeding population, inhabit these waters. Soon after, however, a factory leaked molasses into the Beas throwing up hundreds of dead fish in the river.
With less than a dozen Indus dolphins, that this is a breeding population, gives hope.But they will have a fighting chance of survival only if we actively protect their breeding sites and maintain healthy river flows.
Else, the Indus dolphin in India will follow the Chinese baiji into extinction.
The writer is an independent photographer and writer documenting the fallouts of ecological degradation and climate change.
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