It had been over four months since I had begun my research on the Ganga. We were to spend over a whole week of the cold February on a stretch that hosts the Vikramshila Sanctuary in Bhagalpur, Bihar. As I was packing my bags with the warmest jackets I had, I was a bit apprehensive. I had already heard about the horrific experience of filming the river from our crew that had just come back from Kanpur. Ganga there is highly polluted and with tonnes of toxic industrial waste pouring into it, it was literally nauseating to shoot in Kanpur.
I was wondering what would become of the Ganga by the time it reaches Bihar. But somehow my mind wavered to thoughts of me catching a glimpse of the elusive river dolphins. "Yes! There are dolphins in the Ganga," I told my friends and family who stared at me in disbelief. And then a flurry of questions started: "'Do they flit in air?", "Isn't the Ganga too polluted for them?" The dolphins had definitely caught their attention. I felt the need to draw focus on this endangered animal.
It was 5 am. We were on the banks of the Ganga. It was still dark and extremely chilly. The winds were strong. As we got into the boat, we found the vastness of the river daunting. Surprisingly, the river was wide and clear. It looked quite clean to the naked eye. Dr Sunil Chaudhary, a conservationist, told us this was because two other tributaries had joined the river diluting the muck that it had gathered in Kanpur. And, in fact the river was at its pristine best at some spots.
Its proof lay everywhere. We could see the crystal clear water from the sandy islands. Birds like cormorants, open-billed storks, red-crested pochards docked the area. Dr Sunil told us that what we were looking at was a sample of how the Ganga originally was! Just then my optimism took over and my eyes started scanning the area to check if any otters were basking in the sun. Just then I saw something grey that emerged out of water and vanished in an instant. I thought I hallucinated. And then I heard people say, "It was a dolphin!". I got super excited.
And there was no looking back from that moment. In the next few minutes, I saw another one. This time I could see the tail fin as well. And there was another one flaunting its nose from water. I realised these water mammals were all around us. I wanted to take a closer look at them but was worried that if we got too close, they might move away. But to our relief, we were told that these dolphins are practically blind and rely mainly on echolocation for navigation. So all we had to do was wait there till they showed themselves. And they didn't disappoint us. As the sun was about to set, they really started surfacing closer to us. I swear I even saw a couple of them flitting in air!
I was soon named the "dolphin spotter". While Bahar Dutt and I had a gala time spotting at least 20 to 30 dolphins, it was turning out to be a nightmare for our cinematographer Prakasam. Capturing a dolphin on camera was a near-impossible task. When we used to focus our camera in one direction, they used to emerge from a completely different direction. They just didn't seem to follow any pattern.
It was amazing to see how they have managed to survive despite all odds. Fishing nets take a huge toll on their population. Dolphins often get stuck in gill nets used to catch fish and get killed. I have seen them and let me tell you that they are simply too beautiful creatures for us to watch from the sidelines as they die into extinction.