Dubbed the “pandas of the seas”, Chinese white dolphins are one of Hong Kong’s most iconic species, even serving as the mascot for the city’s handover from Britain to China in 1997. However, instead of being protected, they have been driven close to extinction over the past 20 years by countless development projects.
According to researchers at the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, who have spent the past two decades collecting data about these marine mammals, there are just 47 left in Hong Kong waters.
Breathing Room, a 30-minute documentary by 22-year-old wildlife filmmaker and photographer Daphne Wong, takes a candid look at the challenges facing Hong Kong’s dolphins, as well as the ongoing conservation efforts.
Young Post attended a question-and-answer session with Wong at the film’s premiere last month to find out what motivated her to make the film, and what the future looks like for the creatures.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Wong has always been a keen wildlife enthusiast, but was surprised at how little most people know about the region’s biodiversity – and how rapid growth has put it under threat.
“I chose the Chinese white dolphins as the subject of my final year project at university, because they are symbolic of what is happening to all Hong Kong wildlife, such as loss of habitat, and human disturbance,” she says.
Despite their eye-catching pink hue, Hong Kong’s dolphins are extremely elusive, not by nature but simply because there are so few left. Their scarcity made it difficult for Wong to capture them on film for her documentary.
“From 9am to 5pm, I would go out on a boat with the Conservation Society research team, as they zigzag across a specific area where the dolphins are known to have appeared in the past,” she says. “Only on three days out of 30 did we have any good sightings where they were close enough for me to get some footage.”
Speaking alongside Wong at the Q&A session was the society’s academic adviser, Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu. He has worked with these dolphins for more than 20 years – he refers to them as “family” – and knows only too well the reality of their situation.
“According to our research, the number of dolphins has been decreasing over the past 10 years, from around 188 individuals in 2003 to only 47 now,” he says.
More than any other development project, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the world’s longest sea-crossing, has perhaps had the biggest impact on the dolphin population. According to the society, numbers decreased by more than 40 per cent during the bridge’s construction, as the Hong Kong section of the bridge cuts across the dolphins’ habitat. In northeast Lantau waters, a group of 18 dolphins which used to feed and breed in the area have completely vanished.
Apart from the Conservation Society’s daily research trips, the Hong Kong branch of the global conservation body WWF has set up hydrophones, or underwater microphones, which help them to record the dolphins’ feeding patterns.
“We have recordings of when high-speed boats have passed by areas where dolphins were feeding,” says Teresa Ma, Project Officer at WWF. “When the ferry passed through, they immediately stopped.”
While high-speed boats can cause serious injuries to dolphins, human intervention doesn’t always help.
Hung recalls spending two weeks tracking a dolphin with severe injuries caused by a boat propeller. As experts in the field, he and his team wanted to leave the dolphin to heal on its own, but they faced backlash from the public. The government decided to step in, but ended up doing more harm than good; the dolphin died within days of being captured.
As the opening lines of Breathing Room state, “The white dolphin has paid the price for rapid urbanisation”.
But their decline is just the tip of the iceberg; there are hundreds of species in Hong Kong which could also be at risk, but aren’t being researched or monitored.
“If the Chinese white dolphins can’t be saved, and we’ve already been trying to protect them for the past two decades,” asks Hung, “what about the other 298 species that haven’t even been profiled?”