Studying India’s Marine Mammals — An Interview with Dipani Sutaria

Dipani Sutaria -- wandering ecologist
With two Masters Degrees in Biology and a PhD, globe trotting ecologist Sutaria specialises in studying marine mammals.

In a wide-ranging email interview with CI’s Shekar Dattatri, independent Indian ecologist, Dipani Sutaria, gives us a glimpse into her quest to study marine mammals. Based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Dipani is affiliated to James Cook University, Australia, from where she completed her PhD on Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika Lagoon in eastern India. She is a member of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group. Her current research activities cover human-animal interactions, marine and aquatic mammals, animal behavior, urban biodiversity assessments, and sustainable development practices. She works with local researchers, institutions and NGOs at different project locations, and can be contacted at

Shekar Dattatri: Tell us a little bit about yourself: your education, interest in wildlife, and how you got to where you are today…

Dipani Sutaria: Growing up in a protected joint Gujarati family, I was the kid who was mostly outdoors, unless it was time for back-to-back films on the weekend. My father’s love for photography, films, travel and nature seeped into me. I spent most of my childhood observing backyard birds and animals and their interactions with each other, and my family encouraged this interest because they found it amusing at the time.

I did my Bachelors in Zoology-Biochemistry, from St Xaviers Bombay, where I met my first mentor in the field, Dr. Smita Krishnan, a marine biologist, who greatly influenced and nurtured my interest in nature and wildlife. She introduced me to my senior – and the other prominent figure in my growing up phase – Dr. Rohan Arthur. One thing led to another, and after my Bachelors with honors in Entomology, I took up an M.Sc in Zoology-Wildlife Biology from MS University, Baroda, and studied fruit bats for my thesis. This was an urban ecology project though, and I was itching to go out into field. I wrote to several people in search of an assistantship, and got lucky when Dr. Bivash Pandav offered me a research assistantship to manage his olive ridley sea turtle research at Gahirmatha, Orissa. An island called Babubali, far from the mainland, became my home in 1998-1999. This is where my journey into the world of all things marine started.

SD: What motivated you to study marine mammals?

DS: We first sighted socializing Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins during our turtle tagging trips out on the water in Gahirmatha. The dolphins would often encircle our boat with body rolls, tail slaps, and belly rubs. They were also very curious about our boat, and held my attention enough for us to discuss writing a proposal to study them. After the sightings at Gahirmatha, we did a literature review and realised that we knew very little about marine mammals from India, apart from some basic work done on Ganges river dolphins and Irrawaddy dolphins. CMFRI and ZSI had diligently documented all marine mammals that had stranded or had washed ashore around their centres, but even these accounts were not totally dependable as the chances of misidentification are very high.

I hoped that someday every coastal state of India would have marine mammal researchers. My interest was mainly in studying behavior and cognition, but I had no idea where to start! Just knowing that there was a whole group of unstudied mammals out there, known to show Theory of Mind, are intelligent, thoughtful, perhaps altruistic, and occupying one of the most important, diverse, and mysterious ecosystems on the planet, was enough to push this work ahead.

SD: When did you start studying marine mammals? What was your first project?

DS: In the summer of 2000, Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh invited me to co-author a book chapter on marine mammals of the Indian sub-continent, for which we had to cover a lot of ground in terms of collating anecdotal and published records of sightings, live strandings and carcasses, reviewing species diversity (India has reported at least 27 species of whales and dolphins based on carcasses washed ashore), and summarizing biological and ecological information for each species based on work done in other parts of the world. This exercise provided a knowledge base about a group of mammals that nobody taught about in India.

During this time, Dr Richard Connor’s work on Bottlenose dolphin alliances in Shark Bay, Western Australia, made me apply for a Masters degree in Marine Biology at UMass Dartmouth and I took it up in 2000. After some very sound guidance from Dr. Rohan Arthur and Dr. Thomas Jefferson, I had written up a project proposal to compare cetacean diversity along the coast of Goa and Gulf of Kachchh as the thesis project. It was my second M.Sc, but in a different field and with a Professor I wanted to learn from. Being a teaching assistant for biology undergraduates was not much fun, but in return I was lucky to get an opportunity to assist Richard in his research at Shark Bay. Learning from the best is never easy, but looking back I am always thankful. I learnt all the fundamentals of marine mammal research during this time, studying population dynamics, social structure, and behavioral ecology from the various research groups based in Shark Bay. During my time at Shark Bay, the M.Sc. proposal received funding from Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong. So I returned to India and began my first marine mammal project here in late 2001.

During the Master’s research we found Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and Finless porpoises in Goa and Gulf of Kachchh, but the densities were much higher in Goa than in the marine protected area of Gulf of Kachchh. This was 13 years ago. Opportunistic surveys after that seem to show that densities and distributions have reduced, but someone needs to go out there and assess this.

SD: How different or similar is it to work in India compared to Shark Bay or other places?

DS: Working at sea in India is very different from working in Australia or other places abroad. The difference is mainly in organizing logistics, availability of survey vessels and the willingness of administrative powers to encourage new research. Here, one has to hire boats and depend on fisher-folk to get work done, so it has to have local community involvement from the beginning. In Gujarat, after much searching, we had to use a lifeboat and had to stay on the boat throughout the surveys as the industrial ports refused to let us dock. Going to a new field site, meeting local fishers, searching for local partners and developing and sustaining mutual trust is all part of doing research in India. Abroad, researchers have to be self-sufficient in these aspects. It has pros and cons. Shark bay, Kaikoura, Hallaniyats..these are all very pristine coastlines with low densities of human habitation. Our coastal reality is very different and so working along Indian coastlines is far more challenging

SD: Why did you choose to study Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika for your PhD?

DS: After submitting my Master’s thesis, I worked for Wildlife Conservation Society-NY to coordinate their marine mammal research in Thailand and Bangladesh. At this time WCS had a small project to assess the status of Irrawaddy dolphins in Songkhla lagoon, Thailand. We sighted no dolphins in the lagoon, but found one dead neonate. Only a certain deep-water section of the lagoon still had dolphins, but they were far too rare to sight during two surveys. It was disillusioning.

Colleagues in Thailand and Bangladesh suggested I check out the Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika, Orissa, on my way back to Gujarat. Let me tell you I have a fondness for Orissa, and just driving along those roads lined with fresh green paddy growing in rich red soil was enough to make me stay! I sighted an Irrawaddy dolphin in the first 15 minutes of our recce survey – later named ‘Scoop Fin’ – and a few other socializing individuals. The best part was that these dolphins were found in the lagoon all year through, and they seemed to be naturally well marked and easy to identify – nothing more exciting for someone keen on studying behavior! This is the real reason I chose Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika for my PhD.

Every time we sight a calf or a newborn, it is time for celebration, as getting the sex and an ID for the individual with which the calf is seen, brings us closer to understanding the behavioral ecology of individuals.

SD: Where else have they been studied? Tell us a bit about them.

DS: Irrawaddy dolphins are special because it is a facultative species – a species that has adapted to freshwater systems like the Mekong, the Mahakam and the Ayeyarwaddy rivers (from where it gets its name); to brackish water lagoons like Songkhla, Chilika and Malampaya Sound, mangrove channels and coastal stretches of its range from Orissa, India, till the Philippines. The species is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Cetacean Red List Authority, and of the six isolated sub-populations, five are listed as Critically Endangered. The sub-population in Chilika has not been officially assessed. While all six isolated populations have been studied, very little work has been done to study the coastal populations of this species. It is still to be known if there is intermixing between the lagoonal and coastal populations, and which of these is the source population.

SD: What aspects did you study? What did you want to find out?

DS: My Doctoral research evolved into a social and ecological assessment of the landscape of Chilika, where people and dolphins are part of the same story. The locals told us that the Irrawaddy dolphin or the ‘khera’ was always in Chilika, and was probably living in the safety of this lagoon even before people first settled there. Over a period of 14 months between 2004-2006, my team and I decided to understand both the people and the dolphins.

A typical day in the field started at 5am with a quick cup of tea and biscuits. We would want to be on the boat by 6am and, if all went well, would be back by 5pm. The wind usually picked up by noon, making fieldwork difficult, so the rest of the day went in transcribing data and analyzing photographs for the ID catalogue. We carried out transect surveys and photo-identified 80 individuals to estimate population size, mapped home ranges and assessed space use. We also carried out semi-structured interviews and questionnaire surveys to study the perceptions towards dolphins in Chilika over space and time. We found that the population of Irrawaddy dolphins in Chilika was a small isolated population of less than 150 individuals, found mainly in two core areas of the lagoon. We found that most individuals had very small home ranges of less than 10 sq. km while some individuals explored all suitable habitats in the lagoon. The dolphins spent most of their time either foraging, milling or socialising, and exhibited different kinds of foraging strategies both while foraging in groups or alone. While 60% of the population used the core area in the Outer Channel closer to the sea, another core area was in the south central region, where the Palur channel brought in fish roe and shrimp fry. The lagoon had shrunk drastically since the early 1980’s, reducing fish catch, and presumably some dolphin habitat. They now used less than 400 sq. km of the lagoon – less than half the size of the lagoon in the dry period. After the opening of the sea mouth in 2002, we presume that the system will reach a new state, and preferred habitat may increase or sustain for longer.

Our work showed that the traditional fishers are connected to Chilika by faith and believe that as long as there are dolphins in Chilika there will be fish and their livelihoods will not suffer for long. If and when a dolphin is entangled in their net, they see it as a curse and seek divine forgiveness. But the shrinking habitat and increase in fisheries have led to an increase in encounters with fishing nets, and more incidental mortality of dolphins in Chilika. Interestingly, fishers in Satpada initiated dolphin-watching tourism during the period when fish catches fell all over Chilika. Earlier only a few people benefitted from this occupation, but by 2006 at least four dolphin-watching associations had begun in Chilika, two of which were in the Outer channel. We studied the growth and value of this industry to the people. While dolphin mortalities from tourist boats are rare, injuries and stress are an outcome of un-controlled boat traffic and dolphin chasing. The Chilika Development Authority (CDA) worked with the associations to make them follow dolphin-watching guidelines, and bring about reduction in stress to dolphins. Our questionnaires with tourism boat drivers showed that they were aware of the stress caused to dolphins by their boats and suggested a change in engines or the use of propeller guards to protect the dolphins. We also observed that inter-village conflicts over fishing rights were causing the formation and shutdown of dolphin-watching associations thus limiting the spread and growth of the industry.

I returned to Chilika in 2010-11 to continue my work on social structure and found that this pattern of changes in local dolphin watching associations was still active. The distribution of dolphins in the lagoon had not changed much. Perhaps if prey availability and habitat quality are sustained, and fisheries related mortality is controlled, the Irrawaddy dolphins will continue to fare better than many other wild species in protected areas!

SD: Can you recount some anecdotes or special moments with dolphins…

DS: In Vishakhapatnam, at a very small fishing hamlet, an elderly fisherman told me a myth about Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins – he said that if one does not treat their mother-in-law well, not give her chicken when its cooked at home, then you will turn into an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin!

In Chilika, I used to take time away from work just to spend some alone time. A 13-year old boy used to row me to an island, where I’d camp for the night. On our way to the island he used to repeatedly call out to the dolphins – “cooo coo coo coo coo”. And they always turned up – it was very special; I never carried my camera with me at these times. Sometimes just enjoying the moment in its purity makes everything perfect. On the island, I could hear the dolphins breathing gently till I fell asleep.

SD: What are some of the key conservation challenges facing cetaceans in India?

DS: Frankly, aquatic systems – rivers, estuaries, natural pond systems, wetlands, coasts and the oceans have pretty much been taken for granted, misused or ignored completely. The crash in fisheries is a major source of concern not only for people, but also for all other life than depends on fish as food. The worries are systemic and not at the group or species level. Another catch-22 situation is that species that are ‘Data deficient’ are ignored because they do not have the ‘Threatened’ label. We really need to focus on systems and on biodiversity, on communities and interactions with human systems, to make research matter.

As for cetaceans, the lack of logistical and financial support, difficulty in obtaining good quality data from cryptic species and lack of technical knowledge are the main reasons why marine mammal research has largely been ignored. Putting away organizational and individual agendas and getting the job done is the need of the hour when it comes to marine mammal research. Otherwise, the rate at which coastlines are being developed and deep seas are being explored, we will be one the few countries not able to provide any information on the status of marine diversity in these waters. Not knowing enough about the life history and the ecology of the different species also really limits status assessments. So much data has been lost during the past three decades. Every cetacean carcass that was washed ashore was a treasure trove of information. Everything from age determination, growth rates, reproductive age, calving rates to population structure and genetic connectedness could have been carried out for each of those carcasses. We would have known more than any surveys would tell us. The synergy and trust required to get these jobs done is begging to happen. Collaborative efforts in collecting and sharing data, protocols and training, along with veterinarian training for marine mammal necropsy and health assessments are urgently needed.

SD: You are an avid volunteer for projects around the world…tell us a bit about this globetrotting!

DS: The travel bug is something my parents passed on to us. I routinely search for and take up volunteering opportunities on other wildlife projects. In 2002 and 2003, I volunteered for marine mammal surveys in the Sunderbans and the Swatch of No Ground in Bangladesh, a country whose people, food and culture made such an impression on me that I always long to go back.

During the last four years I have volunteered for projects studying Humpback whales in Oman, Hectors dolphins and Dusky dolphins in New Zealand and coastal smooth-coated otters in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. I have also worked as a nature guide in Uttarakhand, and, if I had the chance, I would do it every year, as I love the mountains in a very different way than the sea. Volunteering per se is not just about the work; it is also about an exchange, about experiencing new cultures, landscapes, challenges, and food and about trusting people. In 2011, this same sense of adventure made us explore the Goa-Kerala coast for Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin presence and dolphin-watching tourism. Someday I want to explore our entire coastline by road!

The wanderlust lends itself to exploring other occupations too. I seriously toyed with the idea of becoming a veterinarian or starting an animal hospital just after my PhD. The latter idea is still on the wish list. I have also taught marine biology and delivered a few visiting lectures about marine mammals to undergraduates. I eventually got back to research in 2012 with the aim of supporting able students in new research projects. Since then, marine mammal research projects have started in Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.

SD: Tell us about the citizen science programme you are involved with…

DS: The online database at Marine Mammals was started by Kumaran Sathasivam and Natrajan, with Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society funding. My colleague Rahul Murlidharan and I help in organizing the database and a lot of work is still needed to clean it and make it user-friendly. On the site, people can enter and verify their sightings, and all data submitted is publicly available for use. We verify the entries that are submitted, based on photographs or descriptions, before adding it to the database. The data is downloadable for use, though we do urge people to provide an acknowledgment. But older records need to be treated with caution and perhaps not be used for species level extrapolations. If anyone needs more information about any particular record, we have a column that provides the contact details of the person who provided the record.

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