The days when dolphins were out in the sea

by Rahul Muralidharan

The sun was supposed to rise at 6:30 am.
But that day it did; fifteen minutes later.
At the break of dawn, a narrow strip of sunlight raced
through the sea surface reaching the shore.
And voila! A group of dolphins traveled along the coast.

Dolphin dead. Cyanotype print by Sudharshan. From

stranded dolphin (Sousa chinensis) on the shores of Kovalam, near Chennai. cyanotype print by Sudharshan.

This is how my friend described to me his experience after seeing a pod of dolphins go past Injambakkam village in Chennai. Dolphins are not new to our coast. They have been there for a long time. Fishers observe them frequently during their fishing trips or from the shore. My first experience of observing a pod of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in Chennai was very similar to my friend’s. Out in the sea on a near shore fishing trip, at a distance, I could see tiny triangular fins pop in and out of the water, as if a blade was cutting through water.

The Indo Pacific humpback dolphin or Sousa chinensis as it is scientifically known – derives its name due to the dolphin’s presence in the Indian and the Pacific Ocean. Distributed along the entire east and west coast of India, a distinct hump on its back gives it the name ‘humpback dolphin’. Since humpback dolphins are coastal species, they prefer to stay within 25m depth feeding on near shore fish such as madavai (mullets), mathi (sardines) and nethili (anchovy). Fishermen call it paru vedan (paru meaning small, tiny | vedan meaning hunter) because humpback dolphins are found in the presence of small shoaling fish.

The stories that you hear about dolphins are vivid in the memories of the men who share their fishing grounds with them. For instance, the Coromandel coast and the Gulf of Mannar fishermen refer to them as karai kadavul (shore god). The legend believed is that Kutti Andavar an influential figure from the Chola dynasty era protected these dolphins. The story is told so:

Once, Kutti Andavar made a ring out of clay and threw it into the water, asking the dolphins to search for the ring. As clay melts in water instantly, it is believed that until this day the dolphins have been searching for the ring.

Coincidentally, this ring searching gesture is very similar to the feeding behavior of humpback dolphins. Mud plumes rise up to the water surface when dolphins nudge their snouts into the sea bed searching for tiny fish, crabs and shrimp. Fishers observe this behavior when they are at the same location, like the dolphins, fishing for shrimp or crabs. The blend of traditional cultures and ecology supports the long persistence of humpback dolphins from its immediate threat – fishing!

With the development and mechanization of Indian fisheries in the early 1950’s and 1960’s, new types of nets started replacing the old ones. Transiting form cotton nets to synthetic nets, moving from sustainable to unsustainable fisheries. Cotton fishing nets could not be soaked for a long time. They would disintegrate. Every time the nets were used, they had to be dried out in the sun at least for few hours before the next fishing trip. However, nylon nets could be soaked for a longer time, which means, more effort and more fish.

Dolphins, unlike other animals, see their environment through sounds. Bats do that on land. This is called “echo-location”. A bulbous structure on their head, known as a melon, produced high frequency sounds. When sounds hit an object, it bounces back and is known to be received by the lower jaw bones. This transmission and bounce back of sounds produces a mental imagery of a given environment, to the dolphins. They receive information on the shape, size and depth of objects. Moreover, recent research shows that humpback dolphins possess signature whistles. It is as if each dolphin’s name is coded with a unique whistle pattern, which helps them recognize each other underwater. Each dolphin has a name, each whistle has a dolphin. Additionally, they also use their eyes to hunt for fish.

Dolphins live in a three dimensional environment, submersed with blue light during the day time and the nights are as dark as space itself. Synthetic/nylon nets are designed in such way that they are almost invisible once soaked in the sea. Gillnets are one such example. These nets don’t give an opportunity for the fish to escape, neither to the dolphins which go in search of fish. Dolphins are air-breathing mammals, which require them to surface every 5-10 mins to catch a breath of air. But once entangled in fishing nets, they die out of drowning. Sometimes, dolphins get entangled while taking fish from nets. However, often-times fish nets entangle swimming dolphins, as the nets are not visible to them.

The Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins are placed under Near Threatened (NT) category in the IUCN red list of threatened species. We know next to nothing about their population status in India, although their range in other parts of the world show very few population estimates. Fishing mortality is identified as one of the greatest threats to humpback dolphins. Since these dolphins prefer near-shore, coastal zones, they face dire threats due to development pressures such as urbanization, coastal infrastructures and pollution which ultimately lead to habitat loss. Heavy metal pollutants like mercury and lead have been documented from the bodies of humpback dolphin along several parts of their range, especially from highly urbanized coastal cities.

Conversely, on the positive side, humpback dolphins have secured an iconic position in the hearts of the Coromandel Coast fishers. Fishermen in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh in the east coast of India believe that they can communicate with humpback dolphins. When fishing nets are laid and in case if the fishers spot dolphins approaching toward the nets, they give out loud warnings to the dolphin not to approach on the same path. To their belief, dolphins switch directions and swim around the nets without entangling themselves. Some fishing communities along the Coromandel Coast consider dolphins as their ancestors who are out in the sea. Cultural beliefs, traditional knowledge and science are enmeshed in these stories; which makes it difficult to tease out the scientific parts. Somehow humpback dolphins have symbolic presence amidst the fishing populations of the Coromandel Coast. Interestingly, these stories have helped in conservation and long persistence of the humpback dolphins in our coast. For this reason, we need to develop methods to understand the nature and attitudes of various fishing communities toward the humpback dolphin. This search could involve anybody with an interest including students, fishers, researchers, general public, scholars, artists, teachers and list goes on.

Many people are surprised to know that dolphins inhabit our coast. If you would like to see them for yourself, then go out to the beach one morning. Who knows you might spot them against the breaking light of dawn; when it is the dolphins’ day out in the sea.

For more information, photos and details about Humpback dolphins of the Chennai coast – please click on this link to access a scientific research paper published in the Journal of Threatened Taxa.

Thanks to Sony RK for critical comments.

Rahul Muralidharan is a marine biologist currently pursuing his PhD at ATreea slow baby turtle and two ghost crabs was his first field notes from the beach for Chai Kadai. He is an integral part of the ideas and activities we do. We hope he will continue to bring more of the ocean in to this space.



The Guindy National Park (GNP) is dying a slow death by a thousand cuts – Join the campaign now


Green spaces that provided critical corridors for wildlife to move in and out of the park are being eaten into. National parks and wildlife sanctuaries require a buffer zone around them where human activities are strictly regulated and pressures on the ecosystem and wildlife are kept to a minimum. Without such buffers, parks have little chance for surviving in the long run. Such a buffer zone is legally mandated. The Tamil Nadu Government has refused to notify a buffer zone around the Guindy National Park.

This will mean that even the last remaining green spaces and the wildlife habitats around the Guindy National Park, such as the Raj Bhavan and Indian Institute of Technology-Madras’ campuses, will have no protection under law. Along with GNP, the Raj Bhavan and IIT-M campuses contain the last remaining healthy stands of the rare Southern Thorn Forests and the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest types.


Please join this campaign:

The Vettiver Collective has organised a human chain campaign with colourful banners and white shirts near the Besant Nagar Eliot’s beach police booth at 5.30 p.m. Please join them this evening to save the city’s national park.

shared by Vettiver Collective. 

Koodankulam Update: Hot water spillage injures six workers at the nuclear power plant

14 May, 2014. 2.00 p.m. Shopkeepers from Anjugramam, a village about 15 km from Koodankulam nuclear complex, reported seeing at least 6 ambulances rushing by at around 1.15 p.m. Anjugramam lies near a fork in the road, where one fork leads to Kanyakumari town and the other to Nagercoil. Another Idinthakarai resident, Mildred, who was at Myladi (25 km from Koodankulam) reported seeing 3 ambulances rush by at around 1.45 p.m. Myladi is en route Nagercoil. Nagercoil and Kanyakumari are two major towns within 30 km of the nuclear plant, with large hospitals. Predictably, the nuclear establishment denied the occurrence of any accident first. Later they admitted to a minor incident and are reported to have said that the injured were taken to the hospital in the NPCIL township, where they were well enough to walk on their own. Sources from inside the plant report that at least three of the injured were contract workers and the other three were NPCIL staff. Reports also suggest that the accident happened in or around the boiler section of Unit 1, which reportedly attained criticality mid-year last year.
After initially flashing news about the incident, the media is now reportedly playing NPCIL’s statements denying and downplaying the incident. If NPCIL’s past record is anything to go by, truth will be a while in coming. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was unavailable for comment.
This accident comes less than a week after the Honourable Supreme Court ruled that it was satisfied with the safety features installed at the plant.

Conversation with NPCIL, Koodankulam Station Director R.S. Sundar on his mobile phone 9443350706 at around 3.40 p.m, on 14 May 2014

NJ (me): Hello Sir. This is Nityanand. I’m a freelance writer. I’m calling to find out if the workers admitted at Krishna Kumar Hospital in Nagercoil are from your plant.
RSS: Who are you? First tell me who you are.
NJ: My name is Nityanand Jayaraman and I’m a freelance journalist from Chennai, currently speaking from Coonoor.
RSS: I don’t speak to freelance journalists, only normal journalists.
NJ: Sir, I am a normal journalist. There are a lot of rumours doing the rounds. I merely wanted to confirm that there was an incident at Koodankulam.
RSS: What did you say your name was?
NJ: Nityanand Jayaraman.
RSS: I don’t know you. Who do you write for?
NJ: I’m a freelancer sir. I write opinion pieces and have published in Yahoo, The Hindu, Tehelka and have written extensively about Koodankulam.
RSS: I only speak to journalists I know.
NJ: Obviously, you can’t know all the journalists. How can I get a confirmation then?
RSS: You go speak to someone else. Speak to Corporate Communications.
NJ: You seem very angry with the media sir. Any problem?
RSS: No problem. There is nothing. i don’t know you. That’s all.
NJ: But you are not likely to know many of the international media either. How can you speak to them then?
RSS: I cannot speak to international media. I cannot speak to you.
NJ: I am not from the international media. I am a Chennai based freelancer. I just wanted a simple confirmation sir. Did any incident take place at Koodankulam today?
RSS: You come on the land line.
NJ: Can you give me the land line number sir?
RSS: You speak to Corporate Communications.
NJ: Can you give me their number sir?
RSS: No. I don’t have it. You call on the land line.
NJ: Can I have the number sir?
[Hands it over to assistant]
Assistant: Take down sir. 259718.
NJ: Area code sir?
Assistant: 04637
NJ: Who should I speak to sir?
Assistant: You just call that number?
NJ: Who should I ask for?
Assistant: Speak to the person who picks up the phone.
[Hangs up]

It makes one wonder, especially when the person who picks up the phone when I called says cryptically that “All the injured are in conscious condition.” If it is a “small incident” as stated by Mr. R.S. Sundar to NDTV, why all this cloak and dagger. If the plant has a sound disaster/emergency response system, why did they have to drive more than 1 hour on bad roads to Nagercoil to treat the injuries from a “small incident.” Clearly, NPCIL does not have a disaster management plan in place, and its corporate communications itself is a disaster that has to be managed.

Click to read Of small incidents and big disasters, -

Wednesday’s accident did not involve radiation. Burns and broken bones are common workplace injuries. It is precisely the commonplace nature of this incident and how it was handled that expose how the Koodankulam set-up has all the ingredients required to bungle the handling of major emergencies. These ingredients are: poor and non-transparent communication, lack of emergency response infrastructure, non-compliance with operating procedures, lack of quality assurance of equipment and personnel…

Shared by Nityanand Jayaraman, a writer and volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle.

Dis-connecting People

On 01 May 2014, International Workers’ Day, Nokia India Thozhilalar Sangam released ‘Dis-Connecting People,’ a film documenting the voices of workers, which has remained muted in the battle between the state and the corporation.

Dis-Connecting People (35 mins: 18 Secs)

dvd blurb

For more information contact: Nokia India Thozhilalar Sangam at President -Sarvanan Kumar

shared by sam pc

Ride for Gender Freedom at Kovalam

Last night, Rakesh left Chennai and rode 40 kms to Covelong Point at Kovalam.

“Staying in a hut on the beach, where Murthi anna runs his surfing school. Olya, a Russian surfing enthusiast and Vicky and Dharani, surfing trainers are also here. This is going to be the base camp of the Ride for the next two days. Thanks Collectives and all the Chennai friends for your kind support and love to the Ride. You will always be a big strength to the Ride.” – Rakesh

Vicky also introduced Rakesh to Chandrashekar. His tailoring team has made a beautiful multi-coloured patchwork flag for the ride. The ride has been generously supported by many volunteers who have painted the cycle, made flags and puppets, offered transit points, and so on. The rider plans to stay in some community every twenty to thirty kilometres and travel using that as a base camp. He would like to use a variety of mediums to engage with the people he meets on this journey. So, here’s one more wonderful way you can support this ride – If you’re a filmmaker or if you have watched some interesting films that can be used in conversations about gender, please get in touch with the rider to organize on-the-road screenings. Call +91 take your film out on the streets. 

Ride for Gender Freedom at IIT, Madras

04:45 p.m. Rakesh reached the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. The students gathered at the Taramani gate to begin their ride inside the campus. They plan to break for conversations with staff and students on their way. This morning Pooja, John, and Nihal helped us paint the Ride for Gender Freedom cycle. Thank you so much guys for volunteering so readily and figuring out how to make new colours with me. Here’s a shot of the Gender Bender -

shared by sam pc. 

Games for Actors and Non-Actors excerpt – The Nuclear Power Station

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a dance piece where the dancers dance in the first act, and in the second showed the audience how to dance? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a musical where in the first act the actors sang and in the second we all sang together?

What would also be wonderful would be a theatre show where we, the artists, would present our world-view in the first act and where in the second act, they, the audience, could create a newworld.

Let them create it first in the theatre, in fiction, to be better prepared to create it outside afterwards, for real.” (p.29)

Forum Theatre is a technique, or a compendium of methodologies, developed in the 1970s by a Brazilian theatre director, Augusto Boal. It creates a theatre where the audience is encouraged to be participants (spect-actors) in identifying and dramatizing the connections between socio-cultural problems, economic and political repression, and also internal and personal oppressions. First, a group of actors devise, rehearse and enact a play presenting a certain view of the world, with at least one political or social problem, which can be analysed during the forum session. Then, the spect-actors are asked if they agree with the solutions given by the protagonist. The actors then perform the play one more time, but this time the audience members can yell stop and take the space of the protagonist and change actions. Forum theatre plays can be surreal, linear, or in any style or genre that organically grows from the rehearsals, but the objective must be to discuss concrete situations. Games for Actors and Non-Actors is a collection of games and exercises that can be used in any space that needs discussion, dialogue, theatre, and action. Boal has written experiential notes along with the games, to give you the context of where it was developed, and how it played out. Here is an excerpt from the book, an example of a forum theatre play in Sweden, discussing many themes we have spoken about in Chai Kadai -

“In Sweden, the controversy over nuclear energy and the construction of power stations was very much a live issue. Some even said that the main reason for the gunning down of Prime Minister Olof Palme was his having affirmed that he would pursue a policy of nuclear gearing-up. His opponents said the opposite – and afterwards, they did it anyway…

1st action

Eva is in her office, at work. The scene shows friends, the Boss, day-to-day problems, the process of finding new projects to work on, the daily grind of a hard life.

2nd action

Eva is at home; her husband is out of work, their daughters are spendthrifts, they need money. A Female Friend drops round, they go out. They go straight to a demonstration against the construction of atomic power plants.

3rd action

Back at the office. The Boss comes in whooping with joy: a new project has been accepted! Everyone celebrate the news! Champagne is consumed! Joy unbounded…. till the Boss explains what this new project is about – the development of a refrigeration system for a nuclear power station. Eva is torn; she needs work, she wants to support her fellow workers, but this situation poses a moral problem for her. She gives all the reason she can for not accepting this new project, and her colleagues give their opposing reasons. Finally Eva gives in and accepts the job!

The forum

In this piece it was clear that the protagonist was going to have to commit an error and not be heroic. The audience almost cried when Eva gave in. And the effect of this was an extraordinary intensification of the fight – the game of actors/oppressors against spect-actors/oppressed – when it came to finding reasons for Eva to say no. Each time a spect-actor gave in and saw that she was beaten, the piece rapidly retraced its path towards Eva’s ‘Yes’. Passions in the audience ran high again till someone shouted ‘Stop!'; then the scene stopped a new spect-actor tried a new solution starting from the first action, or the second, or even the third. Everythin was analysed: the husband’s unemployment, the daughters’ mania for consumption, Eva’s indecision. Sometimes the analysis was purely ‘psychological’, then another actor would come in and try to show the political side of the problem.

Should we be for or against nuclear power stations? Can one be against scientific progress? Can the word ‘progress’ be applied to science when it leads us to the discovery of nuclear weapons?

And on the question of the disposal of ‘nuclear waste': surely it could be satisfactorily disposed of in a social system whose central value was the human being rather than the profit motive.

I have already twice had the opportunity to take part in pieces of this kind. The first time was in the USA, where an analogous piece had been written about the inhabitants of a town which was producing the napalm used in Vietnam. In the end, in the American example, the inhabitants accepted the factory, reaching the conclusion that it would be economically ruinous to close it….. Ruinous for whom? The second time was in Lisbon, again with a similar model: there is a refinery there which is causing a noticeable increase in the occurrence for lung cancer…. but it is important for the economy. Here again, the residents give way and resigned themselves to living with pollution, rather than living without jobs.” (p. 26, 27, 28.)

Read more on the International Theatre of the Oppressed Organisation’s website:

shared by samyuktha pc