What dwells in these muddy waters: The quest for dolphins and porpoises in the Gulf of Mottama, Myanmar

Rainy season in this part of southeastern Myanmar is miserable. It brings relief to the scorched remnants of the hot dry season, but then it runs amok and often floods the cities and villages and rice fields. It is a time of mud and mold.

It is not an ideal time to go traipsing around doing fieldwork.

Yet we were doing just that. There we stood, on gray soggy sand under a damp dreary sky, at the edge of a small village by the sea. We were narrowing in on the goal of a months-long quest: finding a place from which we could set out to confirm, with our own eyes, the presence of dolphins and porpoises along these muddy coastal waters. We needed a place where fishers regularly saw the animals not too far from shore. And we needed a boat. And a boatman. In our search for information, fishers from other villages had recommended we try this place.

I was with Wint Hte and Yin Yin, two young colleagues from the Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab (MCCL). It had been a bit of a trek to get out here, including over an hour in a small canal boat where we sat cross-legged in a single row, for a scenic if leg-numbing cruise past verdant rice fields and lotus ponds.

With our uncertain first steps out of the canal boat, we wandered around looking for any sign of life — any person whom we could pester for information. Past the village’s main road, out on the sand, we saw a thatch-roofed structure with a handful of people sheltering under it.

They were in the process of butchering a pig.

It’s always awkward, this first foray into an unfamiliar village. We approached, gingerly, and Wint Hte and Yin Yin politely addressed the group. Hi, hello, we are researchers based in Mawlamyine (the nearest city). We are interested in finding dolphins or porpoises in the area. Did they ever see dolphins or porpoises around here? Could we ask them some questions?

For sure!

OK. Time to dig in: How far from shore? What times of the year? When do fishers take their boats out, and where do they go? Can you look at these pictures of different animals and tell us which ones you see? Do you know someone who would take us out on their boat?

As we peppered them with questions, I worked hard to quickly synthesize the answers that were translated to me and to formulate follow-up inquiries. I also worked hard to ignore the various body parts of the pig strewn about, including a giant vat of what appeared to be pig fat being melted down.

As I was relaying a question to Wint Hte, both of us standing just outside of the shelter and peering in at our respondents, a woman sitting behind them raised a machete in the air.

And brought it decisively down.

Right through the smiling, but very detached, head of the unfortunate pig. It was facing us.

A thick trickle of blood slowly rolled down its face.

FOCUS, Tara, FOCUS. Do NOT pass out. I grabbed onto one of the structure’s poles, and tried and failed to be subtle about rapidly redirecting my gaze. My eyes finally found Wint Hte’s face, which looked to be in a similar state of shocked pause. We were both vegetarians, and I am (quite unsuitably for someone whose work sometimes includes field biology) very sensitive to the sight of blood.

After some prolonged syllables which I drew out while resuming my interrupted flow of thought, the interview continued. Both of us endeavored to look at our very obliging respondents while somehow avoiding the macabre smiling pig head right behind them.

They informed us that a very decomposed whale had washed up on the beach some weeks back. Some of its bones were still there. Go take a look, they urged us.

We walked along the beach until we hit an oily, rancid-smelling patch of sand. We poked around at the yellowed bones. On the way back to the main part of the village, I found a single plastic doll leg washed up on the beach. It started to rain. Beyond gloomy.

But… we got what we needed. After a few other conversations in the village, it seemed that we had finally found our spot. As soon as rainy season dissolved away and it became safe to venture out to sea, we’d be back here to go out into the muddy brown yonder.

*

This quest had been sparked months before, in the muddy waters of another country: India. I was there with colleagues, government representatives, and fishers from Myanmar, on a learning exchange trip for the Gulf of Mottama Project. This project works to build sustainability for the communities and ecosystems along the Gulf of Mottama, a particularly turbid stretch of Myanmar’s coastline. It’s not the kind of place that would come to most people’s minds when conjuring up visions of tropical beach paradise, but it does have its own vast beauty. And it’s enormously important for fisheries, agriculture, and migratory birds.

When I’d first started working in the area, I remember thinking: Oh, but it’s a shame there aren’t Irrawaddy dolphins here. This habitat would be perfect for them. They love shallow, brackish coastal areas.

Having studied that species elsewhere in Southeast Asia for my PhD, it’s hard for me to see muddy water habitats and not imagine that those mysteriously smiling dolphins might pop up any second. But I had never read or heard any mention of dolphins in the Gulf of Mottama. I’d joined the project three years after it had started, and I assumed that if dolphins were around, surely someone would have noted it somewhere already, since one of the main facets of the project was biodiversity conservation. I settled into my job, which included collaborating closely with MCCL on conservation research and education; I accepted that dolphins would play no role in my work for the near future.

But when I was asked to help lead an exchange visit to learn about fisheries management in India’s Chilika Lake, my ears perked up: it’s a well-known site where Irrawaddy dolphins dwell. Our trip had nothing to do with dolphins, but I harbored a hope that we might cross paths with them while there.

Our travel to India was fraught with complications. That’s the calmest way I can describe it, but I certainly thought about it in much stronger language at the time. We’d had to postpone and postpone again due to some humorous-in-hindsight incompatibilities between India and Myanmar’s respective bureaucracies. And many of us had missed our connecting flight from Kolkata to the airport nearest Chilika Lake, necessitating a surreal overnight trek by taxi caravan. We were exhausted.

So, it felt glorious to get on a boat and cruise along Chilika’s waters during one of the planned field excursions. Some of us perched by the bow of the boat, hoping to catch a glimpse of the dolphins.

And then: a sharp, confident exclamation — look!

There they were. Two stubby dorsal fins. Unmistakably Irrawaddy dolphins.

But what caught my attention more was the man who had spotted them. He was one of the Myanmar fishers. He had clearly seen dolphins before.

“Can you ask him — has he seen this same kind of dolphin before?” I frantically asked one of our local team (my Burmese at the time was completely inadequate for this, and even now would be only barely adequate).

“What? Yes?! Where? In the Gulf of Mottama? Yes?? Where in the Gulf? Near his village? He still sees them?”

Yes, in the Gulf of Mottama, yes, they’re still there. Several other fishers concurred.

The team at MCCL was thrilled with the news that I brought back with me to Myanmar. They had grown up in the Gulf of Mottama area, though not on the coast, and had never suspected that there might be such an exciting animal in the neighboring waters.

The next month, another intriguing bit of information popped up: A flurry of messages in the project’s group chat shared photos of a relatively small, dark, slick-looking animal, its mouth curled up in a smile that contrasted with its obvious distress. It was an Indo-Pacific Finless porpoise, held aloft in the arms of grinning people in one photo, and deposited in a small temporary tank lined with orange tarp in other photos. It had been caught in a tributary a river that fed into the Gulf. It was released, eventually. So. They were in the area, too.

Finless porpoises and Irrawaddy dolphins often overlap, gravitating toward similar habitats. But I had next to no experience with Finless porpoises. It’s generally accepted that Irrawaddy dolphins are a royal pain to study — boat shy, they tend to keep their distance and scatter and pop up in unpredictable places. They can act like real jerks. But Finless porpoises are even more daunting to study. They are small and shy, with no dorsal fin to spot or to photograph in order for researchers to identify individuals. They’ve been described as looking like floating tires bobbing inconspicuously on the surface. A colleague-friend in the Philippines, which has no recorded sightings of this species yet, once declared (…jokingly): “If we find any of them here, I’ll kill them all, because they’re too difficult to study.”

As rainy season began, the MCCL team and I worked to learn more about these animals through interviewing fishers. It was fascinating to learn from their accumulated knowledge about these animals. But this first round of interviews had a very specific goal: to figure out the best way to get out on the water and see what we could find. That would be the first step in establishing an ongoing research and conservation effort for these animals.

The dolphins who started it all. Chilika Lake. T.S.Whitty.

*

A couple of months after our gray and gloomy visit to the village with the pig, we returned. By then, the canals had dried up. We had to instead travel on the back of motorbike taxis over bumpy ground, holding life jackets and a Pelican case and other assorted gear at odd angles as we jostled past fields under the brilliant morning sun.

Our first attempt was… a letdown. The water was churning and choppy — not ideal for spotting hard-to-see animals.

The next day, the water was calmer, a flat expanse on which a surfacing dorsal fin would be obvious. No such luck, though.

As we cruised along, however, a smooth dark form popped out of the water and quickly disappeared again. It was clearly a living, moving being — not one of the many pieces of driftwood nor those bobbing coconuts that had so often gotten our hopes up in the preceding hours.

Caught off guard, I looked wordlessly at Yin Yin next to me. “Was that — did you see — that was something, right?”

“Yes! I think… yes, I think!”

The boatman confirmed: “Lin shiu.” The local name for porpoise.

We had seen, with our own eyes, an animal that had not yet been recorded to science in this area. It wasn’t a discovery, as the local communities had long known about them. And I faced the daunting reality that I wasn’t quite sure how to study this tricky species. But it was still an important step. Despite the near-perfect conditions, however, the dolphins did not grace us with their presence that day.

The next month, we went out again, this time with two eager university students. We split up into 2 boats. I was determined to find those dolphins.

We saw some porpoises. Good. But… where were those dolphins? Those dolphin jerks?

Suddenly, Yin Yin jumped up and yelled excitedly, pointing ahead of us, just as the boatman also started pointing.

“What? What did you see? Did it have a dorsal fin??”

“Yes! Yes, I saw it!” The boatman concurred.

Yin Yin had already proven herself to have a good eye, and I trusted that she’d seen a dolphin. I felt happy that someone on our team had seen it., but annoyed with myself for missing it I asked the student on our boat: “Did you see it?”

“Yes! I did!”

I was elated for her. I also felt considerably disgruntled with my own spotting skills.

“OH THERE IT IS AGAIN! THERE! THERE!”

I couldn’t for the life of me see anything. My frustration grew. It had been a while since I’d done research on dolphins, but this was ridiculous.

The boatman turned off the motor so we could quietly drift a bit. I searched earnestly, but suspected that I had missed my chance to see dolphins this time. Still, I held my camera at the ready, telephoto lens zoomed to where I thought the dolphins might be based on Yin Yin’s description.

Silence. Stillness.

And then: just off the right side of our boat, the water gurgled for a split second before a glossy, grayish-brown back burst through — with a dorsal fin.

Yin Yin and I grabbed each other and screamed giddily as we jumped up and down, like two children.

And the other boat — which had been sent to search elsewhere — was able to join in our giddiness a little while later, when they encountered another group of dolphins.

I’d dreamed of seeing that first dorsal fin for months. And now, we’d done it. We’d confirmed that there were at least 2 species in our area, that it would indeed be feasible to get out and study them. In response to my fevered texts sharing the news, congratulations poured in from my colleagues in the region, many of whom worked to study and conserve the same species in their respective countries. And now, we were ready to start our own program of studying and conserving them in this muddy corner of the ocean.

I will disclose that my first photo was out of focus, as the dolphin had surfaced much too close to the boat for my telephoto lens to be useful.

Jerk.

An exciting moment, captured poorly.

*

That was back in late 2018. We’ve learned a lot about the marine mammals of the Gulf of Mottama, including documenting a third species — the Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin. But what I wanted to share here was the wonder of learning something new about the world, and the joy of sharing that experience with my young colleagues.

Again, it wasn’t our discovery to make, since local people had been fishing alongside these animals for decades at least. We continue to learn about the dolphins and porpoises from them. But it still was a process of discovery for us, of epiphanies born from opening our eyes and ears to the knowledge of those local people. And I hope that it showed my young colleagues that there is something profoundly exciting and fulfilling about exploring possibilities, about transforming those first tentative steps in a new and uncertain direction into confident and inspired momentum, about filling in their own maps of the world around them.

And the process sure makes for colorful, lifelong memories.

Exploring the world of coastal conservation & communities, meaningful travel, and life along the way | tswhitty.com | PhD in marine conservation