Searching Tai O's waters for Chinese white dolphins - and they appeared in a flash of pink

Searching Tai O's waters for Chinese white dolphins - and they appeared in a flash of pink

As their habitat shrinks and their numbers dwindle, YP sub-editor Lauren James went to Tai O in search of some Chinese white dolphins


Chinese white dolphins, that are decidedly pink, are facing many problems.


WWF are super careful about protecting the dolphins.
Photo: Lauren James/SCMP

Why I waited until I was an adult to see a dolphin is a particularly puzzling mystery. Swimming with dolphins was always something richer friends did - even if it was only in swimming pools on holidays.

When the WWF invited me to join them on their Chinese white dolphin watching programme, I jumped on board - though admittedly I was initially more excited by the lure of getting to take cool photos of Tai O's famous stilt houses. Dolphins? Sure, we might see one or two.

We met marine wildlife expert Michelle Luk, Tai O Water Village Travel Company boatman Wong Yun-kang and two student interpreters, Kelvin and Kelly, in Tai O. It would be their job to introduce us to the heritage of Tai O, as well as the ecology and conservation of the endangered mammals.

As the rickety houses of Tai O's waterfront flickered by, the WWF team gave an introduction to the elusive creatures.

They explained how they are being threatened from all sides: fewer fish to eat, pollution, hectic marine traffic, and huge construction projects, such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge

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The numbers of dolphins, coloured pink due to blood vessels beneath their skin, have declined by 60 per cent over the past decade, and only 60 individuals are thought to be left around Lantau.

We'd barely sailed a kilometre from shore before Kelly exclaimed "There! 11 o'clock, they think they've spotted one." All eyes on deck looked towards the bow. Small waves breaking on the surface did little to give away the presence of any hidden dolphins.

We squinted in silence at the choppy water. The captain looked ready to start the engine again when … WHOOSH! A head and tail broke free from the waves. Those who blinked missed it, but it was undeniably pink. The tension was replaced by excitement. Cameras snapped and necks craned.

We weren't the only ones interested in this small patch of sea: two other identical boats had arrived. However, against the advice of WWF, which says that boats should stay at least 50 metres from the dolphins and switch off the engines to avoid disturbing them, the other vessels powered forward in hot pursuit.

Meanwhile, jumbo jets roared overhead, litter floated on the surface, and construction noise boomed from the colossal bridge on the horizon. It was hard to imagine a less suitable habitat for such sensitive creatures.

Nevertheless, the next 10 minutes brought a further eight or nine appearances and one stunning breach - where the dolphin leaps entirely out of the water for a moment. Unlike the theme park dolphins, which are trained to perform the move for rewards, it's believed wild ones do it to stun prey or shake something from their bodies. Lightning fast, they darted and dived.

Michelle Luk (left) and Wong Yun-kang in Tai O helps introduce and explain the Chinese white dolphins.
Photo: Lauren James/SCMP

It was hard to see how WWF's tours could compete with the more intrusive vessels that brought the creatures within the range of selfie-hunters. Back at the dock, Wong answered questions from reporters keen to know why he'd wanted to work with the charity. The economic benefits aren't clear yet, he pondered, adding that it's still difficult to see the dolphins even when chasing them - no tour operator can guarantee seeing them each trip.

Once a fisherman, he swapped diminishing returns for a stake in the village's healthy tourism industry. That was 10 years ago, but since then he's noticed a change. "They were pests, known locally as 'black taboo white taboo'," he said. "Fishermen would catch fish and dolphins would come close. Now there are fewer fish and fewer dolphins."

Before linking with WWF, he wasn't aware of the dangers of getting too close to dolphins with noisy engines. Now, he recognises the positive impact of having a code of conduct as well as interpreters on board to discuss both the Tai O heritage and marine conservation.

"It doesn't help that the government barely considers how to preserve species," says Luk. "We want a well-managed plan for conservation and an extension to the small area by the airport that has been designated as protected.

"But if the plan for the third runway goes ahead, the effects of construction and reclamation could be detrimental. With fewer dolphins, or none at all, the chain could collapse."

But what can the public do to help? "Show they're passionate about saving dolphins," she says. "Support WWF-led tours, use social media to urge the government to take action. Don't stay neutral."

So next time you get the chance, make sure you get to see a dolphin - real, wild, and free. They may be gone by the time you're an adult.

The WWF will be running their interpreter-guided tours every weekend until October.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Living pink, wild and free


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