By Nadim Parves
[The is the fifth blog in a series about the WCS-led marine megafauna survey, which is gathering data on whales, sea turtles, sharks, and other marine species inhabiting the coastal waters of Bangladesh. Data from the effort will identify biologically important locations for future consideration as marine protected areas.]
As we sailed southeast from St. Martin’s Island towards deeper waters, we scanned the waters for marine mammals. Sighting conditions have been poor, and it has been five days since we last spotted a cetacean. At 08:30 we pass by several Sampans, small, elegant half-moon shaped fishing boats typical of the southeast coast of Bangladesh near the border with Myanmar.
Then our team spots a large fish floating about fifty meters from the bow. We decide to take a closer look. To our surprise the belly-up fish is still very much alive when we pull it aboard and a couple of us get whacked by its powerful tail. The twelve-kilogram fish measuring almost a meter long is a giant Asian sea bass.
Just before noon the wind drops to nothing and the sighting conditions are perfect: Beaufort sea state zero, glare zero, fog zero. It was then we spotted four different species of sea snakes – Jerdon’s, black and yellow, spine-bellied and annulated sea. We also recorded a variety of seabirds, including: brown-headed, black-headed and Pallas’s gulls; common, whiskered, little, greater and lesser crested terns; a Eurasian curlew; and a couple of barn swallows circling our boat.
But still no cetaceans. An hour later we encountered a cluster of sixteen drifting gillnetters targeting hilsa fish but that have high bycatch rates of marine megafauna—including dolphins, turtles, sharks and rays. We scramble to record data on the fishing vessels, which will help us understand the overlap of the distribution of marine megafauna and the fishing gears that entangle and kill them.
It was almost 4:00 in the afternoon when our survey leader Rubaiyat Mansur calls out “Sighting!” Shaken out of my afternoon fatigue, I see a blow and a body. It’s a Bryde’s whale, a marine mammal that can reach more than 16 meters in length.
This was the first time in my life I had seen a whale. I was super excited and yelled out, “I am grateful to WCS for giving me this opportunity of a lifetime!” Our captain did an outstanding job at positioning the vessel as the whales circled around us. [Editor’s Note: Researchers from WCS-Bangladesh have previously published scientific research on Bryde’s whales in the Bay of Bengal].
After the thrilling encounter with one of Bangladesh’s marine giants, we arrive at our rendezvous spot to meet our smaller survey vessel F.B. Jobeda, the vessel in charge of investigating fisheries. There was a beautiful sunset but no sign of the boat. We tried to contact them by VHF radio but we received no answer. As the day turned into night we began to worry. Just as it started to get dark we made contact and radioed them our position so we could meet up to anchor for the night.
After eating dinner and entering the day’s data into our laptop computers we can finally relax. But as soon as we’ve turned in, a commotion on the deck wakes us. It turns out we have anchored too close to a fishing net which now threatens to entangle our boat. Fortunately our experienced captain, Kokhon Sarkar, and the crew get us out of the potentially hazardous situation. As if all this excitement wasn’t enough, the wind picks up, and we rock and roll through the night.
At 05:45, alarm clocks go off well before the sun rises. We could all use some more sleep. But another day of ocean adventures awaits. Despite the hardships, including no showers, smelly shipmates, and hours of searching for cetaceans in the hot sun or sometimes cold wind, I would not want to miss this amazing and truly life-changing experience.
Nadim Parves is a cetacean and fisheries observer for the survey.