National Geographic : 2006 May
Numerous spirits live along the river, and worshipping its own blacksmith, carpenter, and wheelwright. I pitch my tent on a sandbank across from the village, and adults wander over to sit on their haunches and study me for hours. When I eat dinner in the boat, word goes out. Soon a large crowd has gathered, sighing in unison as I open a can of Coke, exclaiming if I drop something. The local fishermen are a bit more used to outsiders. A few scientists have recently come to the tiny village to witness an unusual ritual: using dolphins to help catch fish. To San Lwin, 42, a fisherman who shows me the practice the following morning, there is nothing remarkable about this. His father taught him to fish with dolphins when he was 16; the practice has been passed down for generations. Lwin's face, bronzed and creased from the sun, expresses a sort of rev erence as he studies the silver waters for sight of a dolphin fin. "If a dolphin dies," he says, "it's like my own mother has died." We reach the area of the river where Lwin says the dolphins congregate. Classified as critically endangered, only about 70 Irrawaddy dolphins are left in the river that gives them their name. Lwin and the other men tap small, pointed sticks against the sides of their canoes and make high pitched cru-cru sounds. Several gray forms, gleaming in the sunlight, arch through the water toward us. One with a calf by her side spits air loudly through her blowhole. "Goat Htit Ma!" Lwin yells, pointing at her and smiling. "She's calling to us!" Goat Htit Ma has been fishing with them for 30 years, Lwin says. The fishermen splash their paddles to tell the dolphins they'd like to fish together. One dolphin separates from the group and begins swimming back and forth in large semicircles. It submerges again, reappearing less than ten feet from our canoe, its tail waving with frantic urgency. Lwin winds up and tosses a lead-weighted net over the spot where the dolphin has shown its tail. The net spreads in the air like a great parachute, quickly sinking beneath the water. As Lwin slow ly pulls it in, numerous silver fish flap in the strings. Lwin says the dolphins help themselves to any fish that escape the nets. We are following the dolphins upriver when 150 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MAY 2006 we pass some gill-net fishermen camped along the shore. This is one of the biggest threats to the Irrawaddy dolphin: Long nets are stretched across sections of the river to catch anything and everything that passes by-including dolphins. The fishermen call to us. "Do you want to see a big fish?" they ask. They produce a six-foot-long nga maung-ma, or catfish, its head a foot and a half wide, its great whiskers three feet long. The orange-and-white body, dotted with black spots, glows in the sunlight, a masterpiece of creation. Tomorrow they'll take it to Mandalay and sell it for a small fortune: 45,000 kyat or 55 dollars-about a quarter of the average Burmese's yearly income. As we begin paddling after the dolphins again, I ask Lwin to wait. "I'd like to buy the catfish," I say. The gill-net men laugh at the idea, but when I show them the 45,000 kyat, they hand over the fish. My plan is to reach the deep channel on the opposite bank so I can set it free. For centuries, Buddhist monks living along the river have cher ished these giant catfish; at the monastery near Thabeikkyin, monks told me they hand-feed giant catfish during the rainy season. And now Lwin, a Buddhist, eagerly embraces my plan to free the fish, noting the karmic merit I will accrue. But my sudden desire to save the fish's life is a simple matter: I just don't want that great orange fellow to die. N umerous spirits live along the river, and worshipping them has become big busi ness. Traveling the lazy way for the rest of my trip-by motorized boat-I stop near a small village called Thar Yar Gone to wit ness a nat-pwe, or spirit festival. Inside a large thatch hut, musicians play loud, frenetic music before a crowd of rowdy onlookers. On the oppo site end of the hut, on a raised stage, sit several wooden statues: nat, or spirit, effigies. I pass through the crowd and enter a space underneath the stage, where a beautiful woman introduces herself as Phyo Thet Pine. She is a nat-kadaw, literally a "spirit's wife"-a performer who is part psychic, part shaman.