NEWS

Greeks chase dolphins

KHAO LAK – Singing, clapping and banging their boats with paddles, rescue workers – including a group of Greek divers – yesterday tried unsuccessfully to herd a humpback dolphin and her calf into nets so they could be rescued from a small lagoon where the Asian tsunamis dumped them nine days earlier. The dolphins, spotted on Monday about a kilometer from the beach by a man searching for his wife, have become a symbol of hope amid the death and destruction caused by the massive waves that crushed posh tourist resorts. «When we heard the good news about survivors, even though they’re dolphins, it’s great news,» said Suwit Khunkitti, Thailand’s minister of natural resources and environment. «I’m sure that everyone is happy to see at least some life after the tsunami.» But the rescue effort failed after the older dolphin apparently sneaked through a tear in the net. «It was almost a done deal, but unfortunately, with all the tears in the net… she got through,» said Jim Styers, head consultant for the Thailand-based Myanmar Dolphin Project. «These dolphins are running around fishing nets their whole lives,» said Styers, of Seattle, Washington. «If you leave them any opportunity, they’ll take it.» The intense desire to work on a rescue attempt instead of the grim search for bodies led to tension between some Greek divers from the Athens Fire Department and local fishermen, who told the divers to leave and said they’d been given authority to take over. The fishermen tried a traditional technique, even though Styers warned it could harm the mammals. Men in boats made a cacophony in a bid to corner and then net the animals, believed to be an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and a her calf, about 3 years old. But the dolphins slipped from the cordon in the afternoon, and the effort was called off for the day. «We do our best, we try again,» Suwit said. «The ultimate goal is to save the dolphins any which way we can.» The dolphins were expected to be OK for up to a few more days in the murky, stagnating water, but there were concerns, including a lack of live fish to eat. The larger dolphin, about 2 meters (7 feet) long, also appeared to have a back injury. During the rescue attempt, volunteers spotted several human bodies in the nearby vegetation, and one in the lagoon. Even before yesterday’s effort began, Styers gave it only a 50-50 chance of success. «It’s not going to be easy,» said Styers, who has worked on a number of marine animal rescues, including the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. «This is extremely problematic in that we potentially have dead bodies also in the water, which causes concern with hygiene… but also there are all kinds of trees on the bottom, so it’s not like we can drag a net across because it can get hung up. It’s very dangerous for the dolphins because they can get tangled up in the net and then they can’t get to the top.» Sherry Grant, Asia director for Humane Society International, was surprised the dolphins survived the tsunami. «When you look at the condition of cars and things like that, that they didn’t get thrashed, hitting the trees, it’s just amazing,» she said. The Greek divers were unhappy to be pushed aside during the rescue effort, but still pitched in to help later. One, Estimios Papantonis, said dolphins were considered almost human in his homeland. «It’s very, very important for us to rescue these dolphins because they’re the only things that survived the disaster… the only signs of life,» Papantonis said.