Gentle Giants of Gujarat

Successful Whale Shark Release (WTI-TCL)

“My first memory of whale sharks is when I was 10 years old, traveling from Mombasa to Bombay via Porbandar on a ship,” recalls Mike Pandey, an Indian wildlife filmmaker who was born in Kenya. He had seen these majestic creatures—the world’s largest fish—swim alongside his ship during the week-long journey in the Indian Ocean.

Decades after, when a middle-aged Pandey drove along the Gujarat coastline asking people about the “big fish”, which did not have a local name, no one knew what he was talking about. Then, in 1996, a builder of fibreglass boats in Bhavnagar described the beautifully patterned fish accurately and said that in some villages, people hunted it on occasion. Locals did not eat the fish, but they used oil from the liver to waterproof wooden boats.

Perhaps the boat-builder was unaware of more recent developments: From 1991 onwards, whale sharks had been killed in large numbers in Gujarat, fuelled by the demand for their fins and meat in South-east Asia and Europe.

In any case, after the chat with the builder, the quest began in earnest. In 1998, Pandey sighted his first whale shark in the murky waters of the Veraval harbour. As large as a trawler, it lay cut open. Two men who had clambered on were hacking at its insides. As life ebbed out of the hapless fish, Pandey remembers making a silent pledge: he would save the gentle giants of the Gujarat coast.

That would take some doing.

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