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Mascots in peril

Busy sea lanes

The engine slows to a crawl. Aboard the junk boat a gaggle of locals and foreign visitors wait in hushed anticipation, clutching the railing with cameras at the ready. An endangered Chinese White Dolphin has just been seen frolicking among the waves.

In her 16 years as a tour guide and media spokesperson at Hong Kong Dolphinwatch, Janet Walker has seen a steady raft of changes that have altered their habitat beyond recognition. “In a nutshell it’s got worse and worse,” she says.

Janet lists out a bevy of man-made causes: construction of the famous offshore airport; a multibillion-dollar bridge being built to Macau; new container terminals; the explosive growth of nearby Shenzhen; a rise in boat traffic and finally, depleted fish stocks. “Even though all the information and all the science is there to show what humans are doing… they’re just carrying on.”

Once chosen as the official mascot of Hong Kong’s Handover in 1997, these majestic marine mammals have since become an emblem of environmental degradation and neglect.

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Off the northeast corner of Chek Lap Kok, now the world’s 12th-busiest airport by passenger numbers, we are greeted with a dystopic vision of steel lattices, dredgers and floating booms. They straddle the teal green sea and a hazy winter sky, where the morning calm is disturbed by the piercing scream of jet engines.

The government is in the midst of reclaiming 130 hectares for an artificial island, which will soon be a jumping-off point for a 42-kilometre bridge and tunnel system to Macau and the Special Economic Zone of Zhuhai. Maps show a square turned awkwardly at a 45-degree angle, with highways radiating out from three corners.

Close by, the murky, polluted waters are speckled with foam. A polystyrene lunchbox bobs with the current, as do several broken planks of wood and a single blue flip flop. Until the early 1990s, when construction began on the new airport and its related projects, this area was a favoured habitat for the pink dolphins. Now it strikes me as nothing short of an ecological disaster.

Six kilometres to the north of the runway, a small pod of dolphins – including a mother and her calf – play hide-and-seek around our boat. We catch an adult “spy-hopping”, its beak pointing upwards to check if the coast is clear. The dolphin surprises us with two jumps, tilting back in mid-air before landing in the water with a magnificent splash.

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But most bear scars from collisions with propellers and rope entanglements. Three dolphins have a damaged dorsal fin, one whose injury is obvious even from a great distance. Its fin has almost been sliced away – what remains is now a mangled, crumpled mass, curled back and hanging off to one side.

No one knows exactly how many are killed in boat collisions every year. Statistics only cover those whose bodies are recovered by the authorities. The sheer volume of high-speed ferries pose a particular threat, with at least 140,000 ferry trips made per year between Hong Kong, Macau and nearby ports.

Our group witnesses this danger firsthand. “In this channel alone about 70 vessels an hour pass through at peak times,” Janet says. We watch in silence as a high-speed catamaran cruises past, its resultant waves threatening to rock our boat. Within the next 20 minutes, two more ferries will race into an area where the dolphins had surfaced just a minute before.

I had long heard of the plight of Hong Kong’s pink dolphins, but it takes me this firsthand encounter to realise the direness of the situation. If nothing is done to protect these majestic creatures and stem their declining numbers, the future is decidedly bleak. Ten years ago there were 158 dolphins in these waters; now, Janet tells me, it’s dropped to less than half that number.

“So we do still see babies, which is great, but even in the last year or so we’ve lost another 10 or 12 dolphins out of a population of about 65, so we’re down into the fifties now.” Janet looks into the distance, her eyes reddened by a real possibility that she would rather not contemplate.

“I would hate to only say they’ve got five years.”

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Even though all the information and all the science is there to show what humans are doing… they’re just carrying on.” That is just exactly what happens throughout the world. Science has proven over and over again that we need to act now, not tomorrow, to tackle environmental degradation. But many people forget that if we do so, we’re not only saving the animals, but also ourselves. Great post, James!

    November 25, 2013
    • Thank you, Bama! It’s heartbreaking what we are doing to our planet. Here in Hong Kong, the government is hellbent on paving over anything for megaprojects and high-rise developments. And for what? Our quality of life is declining thanks to worsening pollution, and the only thing they can think of is economic progress.

      November 25, 2013
  2. Great post to raise awareness of the pink dolphins’ plight. They are such beautiful creatures. In humanity’s race to build more and to erect our own structures, we are forgetting about the obvious yet overlooked natural beauty around us. We don’t take enough time out of our busy schedules to truly appreciate it.

    November 25, 2013
    • The pink dolphins were gorgeous, I’d say none of my pictures really did them justice! You’re right, Leah – sometimes the best choice is not to build at all. And so much of our lives are spent at a desk, or at least cooped up working indoors.

      November 25, 2013
  3. It’s sad what is happening to these dolphins. I took a tour with dolphin watch as well. You can read it here if you are interested.

    November 26, 2013
    • We can only hope the authorities have enough foresight to stop paving over their habitat… I would hate to see them going locally extinct. I’m glad you also went on a tour with Dolphinwatch.

      November 27, 2013
  4. What a privilege to see these rare pink dolphins! Hope someone takes up a cause to find them a better habitat??

    I had the joy of encountering about 15 wild Pacific white-sided dolphins when I was on a 3 hr. wilderness boat trip on the coast of Vancovuer island. We cut the motor of zodiac boat and they frolicked/jumped around boat. It was magic! (We saw 2 bears and some sea lions later…)

    November 29, 2013
    • Yes, I was worried we wouldn’t be able to see any but they stayed with us for at least an hour! The tour guide I spoke to said the pink dolphins had nowhere else to go… so the issue was more about stopping the destruction of their habitat and curbing pollution, overfishing and all those things we’re doing to our seas.

      I’ve never been on a wilderness boat trip around Vancouver Island but it sounds like quite the adventure! Must put it on my wishlist now…

      November 29, 2013
  5. that’s tragic…what man does to nature….world over, devoid of ‘live and let live’ outlook ….!

    November 29, 2013
    • Absolutely… and all for the sake of money.

      November 29, 2013

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