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Heavenly creatures: Lantau’s Chinese White Dolphins

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To see a pink dolphin is to love one, says Bruce Marsh. It’s heartbreaking to imagine that less than 50 remain in Hong Kong waters.

If you are fortunate enough to spot Hong Kong’s famous pink dolphins playing innocently and joyfully in local waters, you’ll never forget the experience. To watch them launch themselves into the air and glide like eagles before nosediving back into the sea is truly an incredible and empowering sight to see.

Pink dolphin is the common name for the Sousa Chinensis, also known as the Chinese White Dolphin. Not surprisingly, the Chinese White Dolphin isn’t actually white.

Rather like you and me

Senior research scientist at SMRU (Hong Kong) Tung Chung resident Lindsay Porter explains, “Hong Kong’s dolphins change from dark to light grey, then to a marbled and spotted grey on pink, and ultimately to a bright pink, often with remnants of dark pigmentation outlining the eye and the fin edges. At birth, young dolphins are vulnerable and the dark colouration allows them to blend in with the murky underwater environment, providing some cover from potential predators. As dolphins mature, we think the brighter colour is a visual cue to other dolphins, signalling a shift from immaturity to adulthood.

“We know sound is the dolphins’ primary sense, but vision plays an important role in communication too,” Lindsay adds.

“As a scientist, I wouldn’t normally wax lyrical about a marine mammal’s ‘beauty’ (does that make me sound very dull?). I would, however, describe this species as having a remarkable appearance, with its distinctive pigmentation change from slate grey to an eye catching pink.”

As appealing as they are to look at, there are perhaps other reasons why we are so drawn to dolphins. They are mammals, just like us; they eat fish, just like us; they are highly intelligent and very social. Living in groups, they hunt and play together. We feel a connection with them, and they seem equally drawn to us.

Interestingly, Lindsay, whose conservation work and research centres on marine mammals, mentions that, “In Hong Kong, and elsewhere in Asia, there is a belief that dolphins are lost fishermen reincarnated.

“One of the things I find most remarkable about the dolphins is their vocal communication,” Lindsay adds. “The dolphins in Hong Kong have a particularly wide repertoire of vocalisations… complex whistle sequences, churps, buzzes, squeaks, squawks, clicks and moans. This really highlights the links within the dolphin community and the degree of information that they exchange with each other.”

Many people have tried to speak ‘dolphin,’ none have yet succeeded.

lantau pink dolphin

Easy enough to encounter

It’s natural to want to observe the pink dolphins and learn more about them but how do we do this without causing them distress? While we know that the speedboat rides from local villages are best avoided (the operators seem to disregard the safety of both dolphins and passengers), it’s important to note that of all the local ‘eco’ tour operators only Hong Kong Dolphinwatch is recognised by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

“We follow a code of conduct designed to minimise the disturbance to the dolphins,” explains Hong Kong Dolphinwatch’s media spokesperson Janet Walker. “Against the minimal harm that we do by watching dolphins, you have to balance the small hope that the educational effect of dolphin-watching will eventually lead to the people of Hong Kong taking steps to protect the dolphins.”

Not only is Hong Kong Dolphinwatch a non-profit making organisation, it’s been in business for more than 10 years. Its small boat heads out year-round from Tung Chung New Development Pier, providing half-day ecological tours. Each trip includes a talk on the environmental situation by experienced guides and helps generate revenue for research and campaign work.

lantau pink dolphin

“Lots of dolphins have entertained us and come very close to our boat over the years,” Janet says. “There was a trip many years ago when they were just circling the back of the boat and eyeballing us.

“The pink dolphins are quite shy, I’m not sure if it’s because of the boat traffic or the fact that for hundreds of years they were pretty well alone out there,” Janet adds. “The best encounter I’ve heard of was in 2014 when Simon Holliday swam from Lantau to Macau and was accompanied by a pod of pink dolphins for some of his journey. I was very jealous!”

Another way to get up close to the pink dolphins is to take part in Dolphin Quest, a non-competitive, eco-minded event held every September. Hong Kong’s seven paddling clubs (hosted by Lantau Boat Club Paddle Section and including South Lantau Paddling Club) send paddlers to make the 72-kilometre round trip of Lantau in six-person outrigger canoes. Participants pay a HK$550 entrance fee, with profits donated to a different local marine charity each year.

“This year, Dolphin Quest is being held on September 8,” Anthony Said of Lantau Boat Club says. “It involves approximately 90 people, with no more than 24 paddlers in the water at any one time and the rest in support junks. We have partnered with Jonny Haines and Tim Tait of The Lantau Island Paddle [the Discovery Bay International School teachers who paddle-boarded around Lantau in February] to run a joint Dolphin Quest Eco-Education and Adventure Junk alongside the main paddling event.

lantau pink dolphin

“The objective is to raise awareness of the challenges faced by local dolphins and other marine animals by venturing into parts of Hong Kong (especially the southern tip of Lantau) that are not often visited,” Anthony adds. “We are hoping to grow the event and become better publicised, so as to let people know what is happening in these ‘unseen’ parts of Hong Kong.”

Close to extinction

As we all know, sightings of these beautiful mammals are becoming increasingly rare and their very survival is in jeopardy. It is estimated that the number of pink dolphins off the shores of Hong Kong has dropped from 158 in 2003 to approximately 50 today.

“There are fewer than 50 within Hong Kong waters,” Janet states. “Estimates vary when the whole Pearl River Delta is included. Numbers have been falling steadily for many years due to overfishing, pollution, boat traffic, habitat loss and net entanglement.”

Co-founder of Eco Marine Keilem Ng, a Tong Fuk resident, elaborates, “Dolphins use sound to communicate with each other, and they also interpret sound waves in order to interpret and navigate their environment. The recent prolonged large-scale construction projects in Lantau waters, including the airport extension and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, create water disturbances and also sound pollution that hugely affects the dolphin population’s activities, including their socialisation and feeding.”

lantau pink dolphin

Focusing on the particular threat caused by shipping, Lindsay says, “Vessels make the underwater environment very noisy, impairing the dolphins’ ability to communicate by sound. And as noise levels rise, they can be so loud the dolphins’ hearing can be permanently damaged.

“In addition, shipping lanes bisect the habitat, fragmenting the dolphin population into smaller units, and vessels can run into dolphins causing injury or death. Many of the dolphins that have been found dead have had their cause of death noted as blunt-force trauma from boats.”

The government has agreed to set up a 2,400-hectare marine park in 2023. The big question, of course, is whether there’ll be any dolphins left to inhabit it. Local charities working tirelessly on the pink dolphins’ behalf include WWF Hong Kong, Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation and DB-based Plastic Free Seas.

The remaining pink dolphins are now moving to quieter waters beyond South Lantau. And as Keilem explains the new incinerator project and LNG terminal [off the Soko Islands] will further impact their chance of survival. “It is necessary and urgent to establish protection measures and substantial sanctuary areas in Lantau to help protect this valuable species,” she concludes.


TAKE PART IN DOLPHIN QUEST

You can join Lantau Boat Club’s Dolphin Quest on September 8 by winning a place on its Eco-Education and Adventure Junk. To enjoy a day of dolphin watching, SUPing, beach cleaning and barbecuing at Fan Lau beach, you have to earn your way onto the boat. Find out how at lantaupaddle.wixsite.com/lantaupaddle/dolphin-quest.


FIND IT:

• Dolphin Quest, LBC Paddle Facebook page
• Eco Marine, www.ecomarinehongkong.org
• Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, hkdcs.org
• Hong Kong Dolphinwatch, www.hkdolphinwatch.com
• Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, www.opcf.org.hk
• Plastic Free Seas, plasticfreeseas.org
• SMRU (Hong Kong), www.smruconsulting.com
• WWF Hong Kong, www.wwf.org.hk


Photos by Naomi Brannan of SMRU (Hong Kong) and Ken Fung of Hong Kong Dolphinwatch, and courtesy of Anthony Said at Dolphin Quest.

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