Chasing the pod

Ours was the lone boat when they appeared. From a distance, they resembled floating black orbs glistening under the morning sun. As we drew closer, at least 30 striped dolphins including a mother and her calf surrounded the boat — all cheery and playful. Shouts of excitement shattered the hushed air. The children were on their feet. The adults watched in awe shifting gazes between the pod and the children. That solitary moment was brief and soon five tourist boats came to join the spectacle. We followed the pod for some time. They swam closer and indulged us with few jumps and spins as if aware of our purpose there.

As soon as the motorboat engine started and churned against the water, they quickly disappeared. Minutes later, we spotted them from a distance coming out for few seconds for air. We sailed to their direction only to disappear as soon as they hear our noise. The fishermen turned off their engines in the hope that the pod will re-appear. And they did. Our boats drifted and we watched them silently not to scare them away. After taking photographs and with the children losing interest, we sailed on towards Bandar Jissah.

A Village Back In Time
The instruction was simple — from Muscat, drive towards Al Bustan and follow the signposts. The quaint village of Qantab is only 15kms from the centre of Muscat and a good 25 minutes drive sans the traffic. The road climbs a small hill and towards the crest, the hill opens up to a small village dotted with whitewashed houses. As we descend, we were rewarded with an uninterrupted view of the blue waters.
Qantab is home to a traditional fishing community. As if frozen in time past, the village breathes an air of tranquillity and simplicity. In the shoreline of mixed sand and shingle, the locals leisurely passed their time by weaving fishnets while catching up on the day’s village news. Located in Qantab’s boatyard is a museum that exhibits the traditional methods of dhow boats building and a showpiece called the Jewel of Muscat that sailed from Oman to Singapore in 2010. Fishing is their main livelihood but with the influx of tourists, the fishermen diversified their source of income by offering their fishing boats for a half-day rent for dolphin watching and sightseeing.

After the Dolphins
The best time to see dolphins are bright sunny days but such is the way of nature that is not always a guarantee that you can see them no matter how far you sail into the sea. We were lucky. Shortly after we sailed, Ayoub, our local guide and boat captain, shouted dolphins while pointing to the horizon. Armed with our mobile phones and curiosity, we stood and stared in awe. There is something magical seeing them gracefully swimming and cavorting. At the back of my head, I was telling myself how strange yet rewarding to be out in the waters in the Middle East and see these lovely creatures.
Weekends in Muscat meant adventure — exploring the ragged mountains, walking in narrow pathways through the wadis, and sailing among others. Weekends for me also meant sleeping in but that day I found myself in the shores of Qantab beach to sail and find the dolphins. It was a first time for me.
I came from the Philippines where the major part of our waters is located in the Coral Triangle, an area that contains the world’s highest coral diversity making it a biodiversity hotspot. I grew up seeing whale sharks, sea cows, and humpback whales in their natural habitats. I never came across any dolphins on my trips to the sea. Seeing them in ocean parks where they put on a show did not settle with me well.
A pod of dolphins can travel up to 100 km a day in the open ocean. Their bond is so tight that they remain together for life looking after each other’s well-being. Studies show that dolphins living in captivity greatly affect their health and behaviour which include self-harming and depression. One of the earliest documented of such behaviour was observed in a captive orca named Hugo at the Miami Seaquarium. He was seen smashing his head against the tank walls, a behaviour similar in other captive marine mammals as well.
We are fortunate to live in a time when we can still see these creatures in their natural habitat. What is only asked from us is to let them alone and watch from a distance. Regulated tours such as dolphin watching help promote sustainable tourism. Strict regulations need to be enforced and followed such as keeping a safe distance with the cetacean, limited observation time, and keeping the boats around minimal so as not to disturb them.
These creatures belong to the sea and that should remain so as not to disrupt the way of life. Ours and theirs are borrowed time, but we need to make sure that our next generations will be able to have the fortune of sharing the same extraordinary experience we had on that day.

EUNICE FERNANDO