It was a gloomy morning in the winter, standing on the pier our faces were already constantly whipped by the cold gusty wind. We boarded Boat 36826, the vessel the researchers of the Hong Kong Cetacean Research Project have been using nearly every day to carry out line-transect surveys to study the dolphins’ habitat usage and distribution. The researchers would be on the deck looking for dolphins (and porpoises) until the sun sets in the horizon. This research project has been ongoing for nearly 20 years.
Researchers Viena and Robin searching for dolphins on the deck
In the past year, I have been working on a half-hour documentary called 白海豚失樂園 Breathing Room about the declining Chinese White Dolphins in Hong Kong. The weather was the extreme opposite when I was filming in the summer. It was hot and humid; typhoons hit the city nearly every weekend which was very disrupting to the filming schedule. During the 5 months, I worked alongside the researchers, documenting their work, telling the story of the plight of the iconic dolphins through their words and experiences.
Chinese White Dolphin CH34 'Ropey'
The Chinese White Dolphin has a special place in Hong Kong as it was made the handover mascot of Hong Kong, when Britain returned the region to China in 1997. It is also nicknamed the ‘giant panda in the sea’ due to its rareness, adorable appearance and friendliness. Today, they are facing the greatest challenge. Their numbers have plunged nearly 75%, from 188 in 2003 to 47 in 2017. Since these dolphins live close to shore, they are hugely susceptible to adverse effects of human activities. Loss and degradation of habitat over the years is pushing the species towards extinction.
Aerial view of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge's Hong Kong section
Chinese White Dolphins in Hong Kong have lost over 2,000 hectares of habitat to coastal development and land reclamation over the past 20 years. One of the recent major coastal developments was the 50-kilometre-long Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the world’s longest cross-sea bridge. This year the construction of a third runway for the Hong Kong International Airport is underway. The project will involve 650 hectares of reclaimed land, which is 4 times as big as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge project, and will affect an additional 981 hectares of dolphin habitat during construction.
Grieving Chinese White Dolphin Mother carrying her dead calf for a week
The Pearl River Estuary is heavily polluted due to pollutants discharged from industrialised areas upstream and additional anthropogenic contamination. As dolphins are at the top of the food chain, their bodies will become poisoned by highly concentrated organic pollutants and heavy metals accumulated in their prey because of severely contaminated waters. Also, because dolphins breastfeed their young, a mother’s milk is often laced with deadly toxics, and the calves’ undeveloped immune systems are unable to cope with the high concentration of pollutants. Few calves make it to adulthood.
In the south and southwest Lantau waters, the dolphins are threatened by high speed ferries that operate between Hong Kong and Macau at a frequency of 15 minutes day and night. As they communicate with each other and look for prey using echolocation in the murky brackish waters, the overlap of frequencies with high speed ferries significantly impairs their ability to hunt and navigate. Not only do high-speed ferries disrupt the dolphins’ daily lives, they also pose a danger of collision.
WL212 was injured by a boat propeller near Tai O in 2015 and died shortly after being captured for treatment in Ocean Park
Dolphin tour operators on speedboats, also known as ‘walla-walla’ locally, operate out of Tai O, a fishing village in the northwest of Lantau Island. Since the business is highly competitive and needs a quick turnaround time, the speedboats have been observed approaching and leaving dolphins in proximity at high speeds. The exposed propeller on these speedboats could heavily injure dolphins, and daily disturbance may cause the dolphins to abandon the habitat as well.
A playful juvenile dolphin coming close to have a better look
Only 1 baby calf was spotted by the researchers last year. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species has recently uplisted the Sousa chinensis to ‘Vulnerable’ status. This means the species is ‘facing a high risk of extinction in the wild’ and they are ‘likely to become endangered unless circumstances that are threatening their survival and reproduction improve’. Over the next decade, Chinese White Dolphins in Hong Kong are set to lose even more habitat to planned developments and land reclamations.
'白海豚失樂園 Breathing Room' is a 30-minute documentary on the plight of the Chinese White Dolphin in Hong Kong. The film brings to light the research and conservation work that is being done to save them, and discusses the implications of habitat loss due to continuous coastal developments for these iconic pink dolphins.
This film will be screened in Hong Kong to the public later this year, with an aim to raise more awareness and inspire more support for the conservation of the iconic species.
Daphne Wong is a wildlife filmmaker and photographer, recently graduated from Marine & Natural History Photography at Falmouth University. Check out her website and follow her on Instagram @daphnewongphoto!