Puja Mitra founded Terra Conscious with her husband Roshan Gonsalves in 2017 to offer conscious marine and coastal travel experiences in Goa. The activist talks to Travel + Leisure India & South Asia about the need for responsible tours and the life-changing natural events she has been fortunate to witness in Goa. By Adila Matra
T+L India: How did you develop an interest in marine conservation?
Puja Mitra: I grew up in Delhi and Bengaluru and had an urban, privileged upbringing. My parents loved to travel, and we would go on driving holidays to the hills, or visit national parks like Corbett and Bandipur, and these definitely instilled a love for nature in me. When I joined WWF-Goa, we identified that dolphin-based tourism in Goa was being conducted irresponsibly and there were no state guidelines, training, or awareness among operators about the animals and how to operate their boats around them. It is an industry that, in season, might see almost 5,000 people going on dolphin-watching trips on a single weekend. Yet, they learn nothing, not even the name of the animal. And the whole industry is focussed on an increasingly endangered, Schedule I protected species, the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin. All these [factors] made me start Terra Conscious as an effort to address some of these challenges. We work with 10 local community partners, and I hope this model can be adapted to help more operators run responsible experiences.
T+L India: The lockdown in 2020 showed us what the world would look like without the devastating effects of overtourism. What changes did you see in the marine ecosystem of Goa?
Puja Mitra: You can’t undo the damage of decades in two years of marginally reduced activity. For example, we run a marine wildlife stranding and rescue network in Goa called Ocean Watch Goa with the Forest Department and private lifeguard agency Drishti Marine. Since 2017, this network has dealt with 100 incidents of stranded dolphins, whales, porpoises, sea turtles, and sea birds every year. Many wash up dead and/or with plastic in their system. This number did not dip during the lockdown. The plastic, discarded fishing nets, and effluents remained in the sea during the lockdown; households were still generating waste, which was still going into landfills, rivers, and the sea, along with industrial and hospital waste. And let’s not ignore how much single-use waste increased with masks, disposable cutlery, PPE kits, etc. Maybe air quality improved for a few months, but the world didn’t use the pandemic to learn very much, so we are back at it now and everything remains as polluted and vulnerable [as before].
T+L India: Can you name a few responsible tours offered by Terra Conscious? Any new projects in the pipeline?
Puja Mitra: We have a Mangrove Kayak Trail and Plateau Walks/Cycling trails that we run throughout the year. In our seasonal boat trips, we have the Mangrove & Estuary Experience and the Ocean Biodiversity Experience. We are hoping to expand to South Goa and North Karnataka and some of the coastal forests as well. We are planning conservation-oriented scuba-diving itineraries and conservation skills-based experiences, where people can learn how to study ecosystems and sustainable life skills, and contribute to citizen science efforts.
T+L India: What are some of the stunning natural phenomena you have experienced in Goa?
Puja Mitra: Watching a dolphin calf learn how to hunt from its mother, hearing the deep exhalation as the dolphin surfaces to breathe, watching an otter catch a fish, and a sea turtle hatchling making its way to the sea.
T+L India: What are your bucket-list destinations?
Puja Mitra: Every state in India; Indonesia, Vietnam, Botswana, and South America.