I always liked animals, but there was no one aha moment that led me to work with wildlife. During college in Bangalore, Karnataka, I volunteered with an organization that promoted the well-being of captive elephants, and I later worked with a group dedicated to ending human-elephant conflicts. When I moved to Goa after completing a master’s degree in biodiversity conservation and management, my focus shifted to dolphins. I ran a successful national campaign to stop trained dolphin shows. There’s a lot of science to show how damaging captivity is, but public awareness about dolphins is very limited in India—especially compared to tigers, which garner a lot of attention. When I joined World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2014, I turned my attention to dolphins in the wild. Goa is a tourism destination, and dolphin watching tours are a popular activity. I participated in a study that suggests tour boats can stress dolphins.
My colleagues and I tried encouraging boat operators to adopt responsible guiding principles that would reduce stress for the animals, but it didn’t work; they were running 45-minute trips, multiple times a day and couldn’t see how they’d possibly satisfy their guests and make enough money if they weren’t chasing and surrounding dolphins. It was then that I decided to quit WWF and start Terra Conscious, which offers ethical dolphin watching tours, among other experiences, in 2017. We had no business telling boat operators what to do if we couldn’t prove to them that it could be done.
Our trips show that there is an alternative to chasing dolphins. We don’t guarantee sightings, but focus on sharing knowledge about the marine habitat instead, and our customers still have a good time. Originally, I worked with boat operators who supplied the transportation, while I contributed the knowledge and coordinated the guests. Now the operators are trained to run the tours independently, and more want to sign up with us, which is really heartening.
The pandemic has been hard on the business, but other opportunities are opening up. Terra Conscious is coming out with a comic book, a project helping schools adopt stretches of coastline to get kids invested in conservation, and a guide-training program for responsible tourism.
The reason we have been successful so far is that people want something like this to work. We couldn’t do anything if the operators didn’t believe in it. And the trend among the audience is changing. At first there was a dearth of people who wanted these trips, but post-pandemic, people are willing to spend the money. Not just high-end Indian tourists but also local Goan families who are calling me up when relatives are visiting. They want to go on trips in their own area that they feel good about.
Growing up in Bangalore, I wasn’t really exposed to the coast. I never set out to have a marine livelihood, but it ended up happening along the way—and it is the best thing I did.
In the featured image, Puja Mitra offers alternative marine wildlife watching in Goa, India, with an emphasis on ethics rather than up-close encounters. Photo courtesy of Puja Mitra.
This is a story republished with permission from Hakai Magazine. You can see the latest issue here.