Sunday, November 11, 2007

Our search for Hong Kong's pink dolphins

The kids have long loved the dolphin and at least the girls have always been fans of the color pink. So us setting out to find Hong Kong’s pink dolphins seemed like a natural. It took us a year to do it but we finally made it happen. Last Saturday we all had the pleasure of taking a Hong Kong Dolphin Watch trip off of Lantau Island, the large island with the airport, near our home island of Hong Kong. I have hesitated on tackling this one as the hour bus ride from Central out to Tung Chung pier and then the multi-hour boat ride seemed daunting for all of us. But with a local girl scout troop organizing, it seemed possible. And it was. Possible to have another fun day on the water in Hong Kong and possible to see dolphins in the wildly busy shipping channels around Hong Kong.

We were off in search of Hong Kong’s pink dolphins, which we learned are actually Chinese White Dolphins. I had long feared that the dolphins were pink due to pollution in the water but was happy to be proven wrong, at least in part. The dolphin, an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, is born grey but soon lightens to white as it matures. The white color was explained in part by their habitat, which was the silt filled waters of the Pearl River Basin as it merges into the South China Sea. The dense water apparently obscures sunlight and this lack of light contributes to their light coloring. The pink color comes from exercise, just like the flushed face of someone running hard.

The hard core pollution surrounding Hong Kong is playing a factor in the dolphin’s lives of course. Just looking out in the water, we saw all sorts of trash floating by. In fact the guide clued us in on how to distinguish between trash and dolphin spotting; trash stays on top of the water while dolphins just come up for air and dive back down. There are only about 100 dolphins left in Hong Kong, with a decreasing life span and decreasing reproductive rates. The guide said that sadly most of the dolphin’s first born babies die due to the high toxicity of the mother’s milk. Later born babies have a better chance of survival as some of the toxic milk has already been used up.

Once out in the boat, we were surrounded by cargo ships, fishing boats, other private ships. It seemed almost impossible that we would find any of the only 100 dolphins around. But we instantly did. A couple dolphins surfaced near our boat and stayed in our view for awhile. Then we hit a dry dolphin patch. We did not see anything for a long time. The kids gave up and started playing games, reading books and eating their way through the rest of the morning. We finally lined up behind a fishing boat and found a number of dolphins swimming around trying to pick off some fish. We saw a grey baby dolphin swimming with its pink mother. Pink dolphins came very near our ship, looking at us as we looked at them. We saw a big pink dolphin do a spectacular jump. All in all, we had about 10 dolphins swimming right around us until finally we had to leave.

The kids were pleased with the many dolphin sightings but not ecstatic. Adam reminded me that they see dolphins almost every week at Ocean Park, our local amusement park. We often cruise by the dolphin tanks and talk with the dolphin trainers . Our dolphin watch guide told us that the grey baby dolphins we saw with their pink mothers were still nursing. Adam proudly told me that Maya, a baby dolphin we know at Ocean Park, is already eating big kid food. While I was stunned we found wild life in the busy seas of Hong Kong, I realized the kids might not have fully understood the wild factor of it all. At least not this first time.