Mascots in peril
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.
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.
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.”