Looking beyond Goa as India’s party capital

With a focus on responsible travel, education-driven coastal experiences, and partnerships with local communities, Terra Conscious invites visitors to explore Goa’s local marine biodiversity and ecosystems and discover a side of the state that’s often overlooked by tourists.

“A lot of people don’t know that Goa is a biodiversity hotspot and a part of the Western Ghats, which is a global biodiversity hotspot. The state has so much wildlife-from birds to tigers, leopards, coral reefs, dolphins, porpoises, crocodiles and otters. It could be a great wildlife destination, but very few would imagine doing a wildlife holiday here. Even the beaches and waters are more than just watersports or sitting in a shack and enjoying a beer,” says Puja Mitra, conservationist and co-founder of responsible travel company, Terra Conscious. 

Founded in 2017, the organisation focuses on marine conservation by partnering with local communities to create awareness and build an ecosystem for sustainable tourism that would benefit both travellers and various stakeholders with minimal impact on the environment. After running a successful campaign under the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) to stop the establishment of dolphin circuses in India, Mitra turned her focus to the marine life of Goa, where she and her husband are based. “While I was working for WWF Goa, we got funded for a study by the IUCN to assess whether tourism practises around dolphins [in the state] were having any impact on them. We saw that most boat operators had no training, the tourists were getting no information, and it was basically an opportunity lost because people were going out to see these animals but coming back with very little awareness,” she explains. Terra Conscious was thus born as a social enterprise to address some of the gaps they saw in the study. 

Terra Conscious works with local boat operators to educate them on conducting ecologically sensitive dolphin-watching experiences. (Photo: Courtesy Terra Conscious)

They began partnering with local boat operators for their flagship programme, the Ocean Biodiversity Experience, which takes tourists on a two-hour ride along Chapora Bay in Morjim to explore the marine habitat that is home to the endangered Indian Ocean Humpback dolphin. The idea was to reform the current dolphin-watching practises in the state that Terra Conscious considered unsustainable for both wildlife and the local boat operators themselves, who were dependent on agents and middle-men for business with little control over the prices they charged.

“We were very clear that we didn’t want to be a non-profit, because we wanted to show the operators with whom we had partnered that it is possible to run a business ethically and responsibly and that it can generate you an income in a way that is beneficial to you and the environment in which you work,” explains Mitra. The organisation provides these boat operators with training and sensitisation on conducting tours without disturbing the environment, as well as marketing support. “We didn’t want people to book it just for dolphin watching,” she cautions. “We designed the trip to be something that would be comprehensive, not rushed, an experience with a trained guide on board, where you understand that wildlife-watching takes time. It gives operators the chance to learn experientially and understand how to operate the boat.” 

Terra Conscious also operates similar tours to introduce visitors to the rich mangrove and estuarine ecosystems at Aguada Bay and the backwaters of the Nerul river, as well as a gentle kayaking experience down the backwaters of the Candolim river, where you can learn about the wildlife the region holds and the interconnectedness between the ecosystems, and the communities that depend on them for their livelihoods. There’s also a guided walk through a private forest near Mapusa, which has been protected by the same family since 1891. The trail promises encounters with hornbills, sunbirds and other avian life, making it perfect for birding enthusiasts.

“Our aim is not just to be a good responsible travel company; we see ourselves as an education company, actually. Travel just happens to be one of the ways in which you can learn with us,” Mitra tells us, adding that the lockdown in 2020 has brought more enquiries from visitors wishing to explore sustainable travel options than pre-pandemic. While the marine activities are paused during the monsoon, kayaking and nature walks are open to visitors all year round.

Education and public outreach are the pillars of the marine conservation enterprise. (Photo: Courtesy Terra Conscious)

In addition to its guided tours, Terra Conscious continues to stay true to its roots by engaging in conservation efforts in tandem with the local community. They’ve partnered with a lifeguard agency and the forest department to run Ocean Watch, a voluntary network to assist stranded marine life that washes up on Goa’s beaches. Since the state has lifeguards deployed all year round, there are regular eyes on the shore, which makes it possible to respond consistently, explains Mitra. Terra Conscious has trained these lifeguards to act as first responders and coordinates with the forest department as well as other experts that might be required to deal with dead or injured marine life, such as dolphins, sea birds, turtles and so on. “We’ve recorded almost 400 instances of marine life washing up on the shores. Given how small Goa is, we are averaging about 1-2 animals per kilometre,” says Mitra. Recently, non-profit marine conservation organisation, Reefwatch, has also joined the programme and provides veterinary assistance. Terra Conscious also conducts outreach programmes at school, and expects to expand their model to other parts of India in the coming years. “It’s not about where you are, it’s about what you’re doing and what you’re trying to impact,” Mitra notes.

To learn more, visit www.terraconscious.com