By Maung Thar
I was excited as I sat in hull of the small boat that was paddled along the flowing Ayeyawady River. I was sitting between two fishermen, one at the bow and another at the stern of the boat as they skilfully rowed and guided the boat.
Ko Tha Chan sitting at the bow was striking the boat hull rhythmically with a short stick. The stick was like a drumstick used on a drum set in a rock band.
“If they are around and hear the sound of my stick, they’ll come” he said. So I kept my gaze on the water that has yet to show anything yet. I was with the two fishermen between Mingun and Kyaukmyaung in the Ayeyawady River hoping to see the world famous Ayeyawady dolphins working together with the local fishermen to catch fish. This is the home of the Ayeyawady dolphins where the fishermen befriended and worked with them.
Dolphin lovers from all over the world come to this place to see fishermen and dolphin cooperating to catch fish.
“They remember the way I strike the stick. We fishermen has different way of striking a stick and a dolphin associated to a fisherman respond to the particular way a fisherman strikes a stick. It is like a fisherman having a specific dolphin as a friend or a partner and that dolphin respond to that fisherman.” What Ko Pan Sein said as he rowed the boat from the stern was quite interesting.
Of the ten fishing villages between Mingun and Kyaukmyaung, fishermen from villages of Sin Kyun, Aye Kyun, Sein Pan Gon, Myit Kan Gyi, Hinthama, Se The and Myit Soon fish in cooperation with dolphins. A fishing boat had two fishermen with one rowing the boat and another handling the net. The rower had two oars, a short one and a long one. The short one was used for normal rowing while the long one was used as a pushing pole when the boat was in shallow water.
“There are a lot of fishermen but the dolphin remembers the specific fisherman it works together with. Of course it didn’t remember the fisherman as a person but in a way the fisherman strikes the stick. On our part we remember our dolphin as they have different faces!” said the two as I was kept in awe by their words.
Even though some time went by and not a dolphin came into view even though Ko Tha Chan was striking his stick regularly.
“We just have to seek out where they are this way. If we can’t find them we asked those on shore about them. As the dolphins stay in a group and they regularly went up to the surface to breath, those on shore usually could see them. It looks like my dolphins are not here. Don’t worry, we’ll find them,” he said.
Dolphins are mammals and they couldn’t stay beneath the water for long and they came up to the surface to breath. As they breathe, they blow out waters so the fishermen were said to be able to identify their partner dolphin at sight. An average Ayeyawady dolphin is six feet long and had a circumference of about four feet.
As our boat approaches a sandbank near the middle of the river suddenly we saw two dolphins poking their heads out of the water. Ko Tha Chan immediately said, “Those are my dolphins. They’re here because they heard the sound of my sticks. My group had three dolphins. Just watch, they’ll signal once they find fish.”
As he said that a dolphin stuck a tail fin straight up the water surface and then hit the water with a big splash. Ko Tha Chan said this was a signal to follow it and rowed the boat to follow the dolphins.
Soon the dolphin stuck a tail fin straight up again. This was another signal to prepare for casting the net as it had found fishes beneath the water said Ko Tha Chan who then stood up in preparation to cast his net.
The dolphin leader that had stuck a tail fin was then seen swimming in a circle while other dolphins were doing the same. They were said to be circling the fishes tighter and tighter into a small circle and once the fishes were huddled together, the dolphin wiggles it tail fin above the surface of the water which was an indication to cast the net.
As the lead weighted net was casted fishes remaining outside the casted net were feasted upon by the dolphins. The dolphins were said to never feast on the fishes in the net as they seems to have an understanding with the fishermen that the one in the net was for the fishermen while only fishes outside the net was theirs. They also have the uncanny knack of indicating to cast the net at a shallow depth so that some fishes remains outside the net for them rather than having the whole school of fish caught in the net if it was casted in deep water.
As I looked in wonder at the way the two fishermen and dolphins cooperate to catch fish, my thoughts drifted toward the dolphins.
Documentaries on Ayeyawady dolphins and fishermen cooperating to fish were shot and screened by television stations from Japan and Germany in 2007 and 2008 making the world knew more about these animals.
In the world dolphins, whales and dugongs were the only mammals to live in the water. Of the more than 30 dolphin species in the world, Ayeyawady dolphins are the only freshwater dolphin and were zoological called Orcaella brevirostris.
The earliest record of Ayeyawady dolphin was made by Sir Richard Owen who found it in the harbour of Visakhapatnam on the east coast of India. From 1871 to 1879 an English Naturalist John Anderson explored along Ayeyawady River and found the Ayeyawady dolphins for the first time in its namesake river. On his return to England, he read a paper titled “Description of a new cetacean from the Irrawaddy River, Burma” at Zoological Society of London where he used the term Ayeyawady (Irrawaddy) dolphin for the dolphin he found. Later, when same species were found elsewhere, they were also called Ayeyawady dolphin.
Professor G.H. Luce published a research paper titled Ancient Pyu in the Journal of Burma Research Society vol. 27, Part III (1937). Among the writings of Tang Dynasty on the Pyu, a word “River Pig” was used to describe an animal in the Ayeyawady River which is most likely the Ayeyawady Dolphin indicating that the animal has been thriving in the river for more than a thousand years.
Ayeyawady dolphins were found not only in Myanmar but also at Chika Lake in Odisha State, India; Mahakan River, Borneo Island, Indonesia; Songkla Lake in Thailand and in the Mekong River. Anderson recorded his sighting of Ayeyawady Dolphin in Ayeyawady River between Yenangyaung and Bhamo but was now only found in upper Mingun area.
Six locations along the 275 miles stretch of Ayeyawady River between Mingun and Bhamo were designated as protected areas for Ayeyawady dolphin by Wildlife Conservation Group and Fishery Department.
Once the river was full of dolphins but according to a survey conducted in 2014 there remains only about 70 dolphins. Despite the strict control against catching of dolphins and preventing battery shock fishing that kills the dolphins too, two dead dolphins were found recently. As the memories of the fishermen befriending and working with dolphins remain permanently etched in my mind, I thought that it is very important for the locals to value and cherish the dolphins and preserve and protect them. (Translated by Zaw Min)