Pedro isn’t easy to forget, but that’s not why I remember him now, many years later, while reading a newspaper. The beaches of Goa play host to all sorts of odd creatures, but little Pedro, as wide as he was tall, remains a particular favourite, because out in the Arabian Sea, it was in his boat that I saw a fairy tale come to life.
‘Keiko’ was sitting on the ‘starboard’ side of Pedro’s ‘Dolphin watching’ dory. While the rest of us were scanning the watery horizon for tell-tale signs of a dorsal fin that would reveal the cetaceans, Keiko was sitting quietly, holding her little boy’s hand, who looked like he had just buried a dear pet. With the dolphins proving elusive, my eyes and mind wandered to meet Keiko’s, who smiled a slow smile. The little boy continued to stare at his feet. “I’m Japanese, Japanese–American now I guess, and this is my son Kenny.” Kenny looked up and smiled the same slow smile, and then the talk moved on to more comfortable topics like the weather in Goa before lingering for a while on the subject of dolphins. “Kenny needs to see a dolphin. We’ve been everywhere, from British Columbia to Australia, where every other tourist I know has seen and even played with one, but somehow Kenny seems destined not to. His father’s gone now and nothing seems to lift his spirit. He knows he won’t see one…. (I felt sad for poor Pedro now, because no dolphins meant he’d have to give our money back, but little Kenny looked so much sadder, that it was tough to blame him for our collective frustration)… maybe it’s my fault.” “Why are you blaming yourself?” I asked, “It’s thousands of miles of open water, not an aquarium… it’s a matter of chance…” “My family is from a fishing village in Futo, in Japan, and every year in Futo, there are days when hundreds, maybe thousands of dolphins are corralled and then butchered alive. On such days, the sea is red with blood, and that blood is in my veins, and now in Kenny’s. Maybe the dolphins sense it.” It was February, bright and sunny, and we were in a boat full of holiday revellers and yet, I felt a slight shiver run down my spine, as this graceful middle aged woman scanned the bluish-green (aquamarine, the ladies call it) waters for what she believed she wouldn’t find. “Recently we had been to Jerusalem... his father was a Jew and I thought Kenny should know…” she continued, still gazing at the horizon, “and there I heard an incredible story about a dolphin called Olin. A wild dolphin had shown up in a little natural harbour near the Sinai Desert and would tail the fishing boat of a deaf and mute man called Abidallah. He was from a small fishing village of a Bedouin people called Muzeini.
One in seven Muzeini are born deaf because, as Bedouins who’ve given up their nomadic way of life and taken to the sea, they were excommunicated by other Bedouin tribes and forced to marry within their community, thus resulting in a congenital hearing defect across the tribe. Abidallah and the dolphin became friends and soon they would swim and dive together and had become inseparable. In time, the moody, morose Abidallah became happy and cheerful and before long, Abidallah could hear and began to speak. The whole village marvelled at the miracle and adopted the dolphin they called Olin. One day, Olin was thrashing her tail in distress as if calling out for help and Abidallah rushed into the waters where he saw her calf drowning in a rogue drift net (drift nets are used to catch fish but end up snagging thousands of dolphins all over the world – innocent victims of the commercial fishing industry). Abidallah cut the struggling calf free and the bond between dolphin and man grew even stronger. Someday, I’ll take Kenny to that fishing village and maybe seeing Olin and Abidallah would heal his soul.”
An article in The Times of India talks about how research scientists have recently discovered the hitherto considered human trait of altruism in chimpanzees, but all they had to do was listen to Olin’s story, which I recently discovered has been the inspiration for a book by Pascale Noa Bercovitch. Or they could’ve asked after the legend of Donald, a bottle nosed dolphin, who, in 1972, rescued lost sailors along the British coast. As early as 62 AD, Plutarch, the Greek moralist had said ‘to the dolphin alone, nature has granted what the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage’. Accounts abound of how dolphins have approached and rescued people who were drowning, protected them from sharks and guided boats lost at sea, or in a storm, back to shore. And they are therapeutic too, as Abidallah and many other physically handicapped or mentally disturbed or challenged individuals would testify. And yet, these great and good Samaritans are killed by fishermen in some parts of the world for meat, while many thousands are killed by Tuna fishing drift nets. We ‘altruistic’ humans sure know how to repay the kindness of others!
Anyway, going back to our story, no dolphins had surfaced and a dejected Pedro was heading back. Keiko and the other tourists had dozed off and I too was slowly drifting away, when Kenny jumped and screamed and pointed at something behind my shoulder. “There it is mom, there it is…” he screamed. I turned to catch a pair of brown flukes (tail) as they waved almost to say goodbye, and while almost the whole boat had missed the show, the once sad little boy had been transformed into a bundle of disbelief and joy. His mother’s eyes were moist. Whether it was the sea or something else, I cannot tell, but if you want to see the dolphins in Goa, just ask for Pedro… he is hard to miss.
THE SLIP STREAM
There are about 40 species of dolphin in the world. While the common and Indo-Pacific hump-backed dolphin are the ones, one is most likely to encounter along the Goan coast, the only one which is endemic to India is the Ganges River Dolphin. Known locally as Susu, it looks like a torpedo with a beak. Almost completely blind, it has a highly developed ‘sonar sense’ to compensate for its visual shortcomings, to such an extent that it can navigate and even catch its prey through echolocation.
Dolphin sonar is said to have therapeutic effects. It is said that as humans come close to a dolphin, the sonar waves pass through them, triggering healing. There have been reports of children suffering from a mental trauma or a mental illness getting better in presence of dolphins. Such ‘dolphin therapy’ often minimises symptoms and induces normalcy. But pollution of our waterways, hunting for meat and blubber and commercial drift net fishing (huge floating nets designed to trap fish by their gills that invariably catch an indiscriminate amount of dolphins) are decimating dolphin numbers in rivers and oceans. Surely these gentle creatures deserve better.