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The Dolphin Watchers of Morjim

Updated: Feb 8, 2019

With the help of a marine conservationist, eight young fishermen are defining ethical dolphin tourism in Goa.

Story by Cara Tejpal

Photos by Meesha Holley

From the prow of the boat Puja Mitra urges us to hold tight as Captain Sam steers us toward the gaping mouth of the Chapora river. The waters eddy and swirl, I taste the brine in the air, then we crest a wave and lurch into the Arabian Sea. A kilometre from the coast Sam kills the engine, smiles broadly and points. Humpback dolphins. We glimpse a dorsal fin here, a fluke there. Hear the gush of air from their blowholes, and use a hydrophone to be privy to their underwater chatter. We keep our distance, drifting alongside the pod until the rising sun chases us back to shore.

“That day it felt like the only thing in the sea were dolphins.”

Further south, off Sinquerim beach, the dolphin watching experience is less benign. Dozens of operators advertise cheap trips and vie for tourist attention at as little as 300 rupees a person. Speakers blare Bollywood pop, lifejackets are conspicuous by their absence and boat motors run relentlessly. In the hustle and grind to make a living, operators are compelled to guarantee sightings and each morning they head out to sea to chase and corral the dolphins for tourists.

Puja Mitra leads an ocean biodiversity experience on a boat captained by fisherman Sam.

Puja arrived at Sinquerim in 2014. As the coordinator for the WWF-India’s Goa Marine Programme, she spent the next two years under the guidance of leading cetacean ecologist Dipani Sutaria. Mentored by Dipani, the WWF team framed guidelines for dolphin-watching and trained 40 boat-owners to lead ethical tours. Then they conducted a surprise compliance check and found that not one of them were following these guidelines.

When I meet her in the idyllic village of Parra, Puja’s conservation enterprise Terra Conscious is not yet a year old. “I realised that I had to prove to boat-owners that ethical tourism is profitable. When dolphin tourism exploded in Goa, the state listed it under ‘Water Sports’ and operators promoted a “no dolphin, no pay” policy that created a hostile industry. They were competing with one another and under pressure to show dolphins or go unpaid. It bred an insensitivity that made dolphins the last priority. I realised to improve things I had to create market links between empowered operators and conscious travellers.” So, Puja turned her sights to the Morjim Jetty.

The Dream Team

The humpback dolphin that we see in Goa is listed as endangered and comes under India’s Wild Life Protection Act, 1972. They live close to the shoreline, occasionally entering rivers as they chase after mullet. “We call it buliya,” says Chandu. “Usually we see small pods of four-five, but one time we saw at least 80 at one spot. That day it felt like the only thing in the sea were dolphins.”

Chandu contemplates the pros and cons of tourism as he draws in his boat.

Chandu is one of eight community partners with whom Terra Conscious conducts Ocean Biodiversity Experiences. He comes from a family of fisherfolk that migrated from Maharashtra and settled in Goa two generations ago. “We still fish, but not as much. Dolphin tourism is more profitable now that we’re doing it this way.”  Chandu’s referring to the tourism model that Terra Conscious has developed in accordance with international dolphin-watching guidelines. On these trips, tourists pay a premium and listen to a presentation before they even step foot on a boat. Once at sea, the captains switch off the engines and maintain a minimum distance of 50 metres from the dolphins. Later, visitors are taken to an exquisite sandbank in the river to birdwatch and collect trash that may have drifted ashore. The boat operators are guaranteed an income on every trip, whether the group sees dolphins or not. It’s a win-win-win scenario, with tourists leaving well-informed, operators earning a respectable sum and the least amount of stress possible caused to the dolphins.  

April on the Konkan coast is stiflingly hot. Chandu is perched on his boat, while I squint up at him from the sand. “Earlier we didn’t know anything about dolphins. We ran tours like the Sinquerim ones. Now it’s different. I feel good about what we do. Plus we save almost half the petrol we would have used if we did it the old way because when we see the dolphins, we switch off the engine. ”

“They’ve started LED fishing, using powerful lights to burn fish out of the water. They’re operating too close to the shore. What will be left for the dolphins and us if they fish at this rate?”

The Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin.

Photo by Mallika Talwar | Terra Conscious.

Ever-smiling Sam doesn’t own a boat but he has been operating dolphin vessels from Morjim for 13 years. The first time Puja encountered him, Sam was giving chase to a pod and pointedly ignoring her frenzied shouts to slow down. Now he’s her greatest supporter. “I was annoyed that these hi-fi boats were telling us how to do business,” he laughs. “Then Chandu convinced me to give Puja a chance. Since then I’ve been doing tours with her every week. This work has filled my stomach. My father is so proud. He tells me I must never leave Terra Conscious.” 

Rajesh explains the devastating impact of LED fishing while Sam looks on.

On days when Puja doesn’t have guests, Sam and the others continue to run trips independently. These, though modestly priced, have begun to mimic the Terra Conscious experience. “We’re also telling the other fisherman and boat owners not to chase the dolphins,” says Sam.

At the little shack on the jetty, we’re joined by Rajesh. Along with his brothers, he owns and operates the third dolphin boat that docks here. Rajesh is in a dark mood though. A dead dolphin has washed up on the beach and he thinks it was killed by the propeller of one of the trawlers that crowd the bay. “They’ve started LED fishing, using powerful lights to burn fish out of the water. They’re operating too close to the shore. What will be left for the dolphins and us if they fish at this rate?” he asks.

These men know and love the oceans and coasts more deeply than any iterant traveller and they are determined to bring change.

The dolphin watchers and the lifeguards who patrol Goa’s beaches serve as de-facto first responders to wildlife emergencies. In 2017, Terra Conscious received support from the IUCN and the State Forest Department to streamline their efforts. This watchdog group, now known as Ocean Watch, provides crucial data on marine mammal and turtle deaths in Goa. Any time a member comes across a dead animal, they upload details on a Whatsapp group created for this purpose. In the past 11 months, they've recorded 81 deaths, including 20 dolphins, seven porpoises, one whale, one unidentified cetacean and 52 turtles. This year veterinarians will also be trained as apart of this initiative to perform marine necropsies which may shed some light on why these animals died. 

When the Clouds Pass

A spot of birdwatching and a quick clean-up of litter that washes ashore a sandbank in the Chapora River marks the end of the dolphin trip.

It’s monsoon now. Boats have been pulled in, the sea has grown dark, the rivers are swelling and for a few months, the Dolphins will know a modicum of relief from human activity. In these weeks, the dolphin watchers will mend their fishing nets, tend to boat repairs and train with Terra Conscious for the coming season. In October, when they push their vessels down the beach again, they are confident that it will be the start of a rewarding season. Puja is optimistic too, but she is cautious. The truth is that unless more travellers choose ethical dolphin safaris, it will become impossible to sustain the work of Terra Conscious and its community partners.

Goa is incredibly biodiverse, but its natural bounty is reeling under pressures from coal mining, real estate developers, unregulated trawlers and unchecked tourism. It’s unfathomable to me that the government is considering razing the mangrove forests that hug the contours of the Chapora river to erect casinos. It’s infuriating that trawlers illegally plunder the sea within view of the office of the Captain of Ports. It’s beyond bleak to imagine a Goa overrun by concrete, its waters lifeless and polluted. Still, Chandu, Sam and Rajesh represent a new breed of conservation practitioners. Members of local communities who are making a living by adopting science and ingenuity to tackle the environmental crises in their backyard. These men know and love the oceans and coasts more deeply than any iterant traveller and they are determined to bring change.

Rajesh and his three brothers operate one of the four dolphin tourism boats that dock at the Morjim jetty.

Rajesh remembers a time when boats were made of mango wood and his father caught kingfish the size of a small man. Sam tells me that his daughter Samiksha stayed awake until four in the morning to watch turtle hatchlings shuffle down Morjim beach and be swept away by the waves. Under the shade of this shack, they share their memories and aspirations with me.  I am moved by their candour, and hope that when the clouds pass Goa’s tourists will keep a morning to seek out the dolphin watchers of Morjim.

Cara Tejpal is a wildlife conservationist with the Sanctuary Nature Foundation.

Meesha Holley is a freelance photographer based in Goa.

A Telugu translation of this article first appeared on the BBC website

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