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On borrowed time: The plight of the Chinese White Dolphins

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As the likelihood of survival for Lantau’s Chinese White Dolphins fades, Jason Pagliari reports on their plight, and the kindliest ways to see them in their natural habitat.

Most Lantauers have made the bus journey to Tai O and, lured by touts for competing business, taken a fast boat out to the marine habitat offshore in the hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive and extremely rare Chinese White Dolphins. On such a trip today, you’ll quickly notice you’re in the middle of a construction site, with the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge nearing completion and the third airport runway coming up just around the coast. All this despite concerns over some 650 hectares of prime dolphin habitat being lost to land reclamation.

The government has agreed to set up a 2,400-hectare marine park but only after the runway is completed in 2023. The big question, of course, is whether there’ll be any dolphins left by then. Add to all the construction, the re-routing of high-speed Sky Pier ferries straight through dolphin habitat, and the future looks bleak for Lantau’s loveable pink-hued cetaceans.

A recent study, conducted by Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu of the Cetacean Research Project, reveals that the Chinese White Dolphins’ existence has reached crisis point: “Numbers drop every year but usually there are at least some bright spots. In recent years for example, we saw dolphins taking refuge further south… and they were still reproducing,” he told the SCMP in June. “There are absolutely no barometers of optimism this year.”

In clear sight               

While there may not be much that locals can do at this point – charities and eco groups can’t stop the construction work – there are still some people out there who get to witness these majestic creatures in as natural a way as possible. Every September, Hong Kong’s seven paddling clubs (hosted by Lantau Boat Club Paddle Section and including South Lantau Paddling Club), each provide a six-man outrigger canoe crew to make the 72-kilometre round trip of Lantau in a non-competitive, eco-minded event, Dolphin Quest.

“We have attempted to grow the event year on year since 2011,” says event coordinator Adie Leung. “The aim is to raise the awareness of those taking part, and also bring the dolphins’ plight to the attention of the general public through the press coverage generated.”

The 100 or so Dolphin Quest participants (two support junks carry additional paddlers and their guests) each pay a HK$550 entrance fee, with profits donated to a different local marine charity each year.

Local charities working tirelessly on the Chinese White Dolphins’ behalf include WWF Hong Kong, Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation and DB-based Plastic Free Seas.

For an organisation that provides eco-friendly dolphin-watching boat trips, that are open to all, Hong Kong Dolphinwatch comes highly recommended. Its year-round, half-day ecological tours cruise out from Tung Chung New Development Pier, taking every care not to disturb the resident cetaceans. Each trip includes a talk on the environmental situation by experienced guides, and helps generate revenue for research and campaign work.

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