It is strange how the smallest of incidents can set one off down a path in life never previously considered. One such incident happened to me back in 2003.

In the pursuit of finding somewhere dry to while away a particularly wet lunchtime hour, I happened into a charity bookshop. Something caught my eye and, whilst pulling it off the shelf, a second book fell out and clattered to the floor. I stooped to pick it up and glanced at the cover; “A Guide to Whales and Dolphins of the World”.

I casually flicked through the pages and spotted a little box halfway down the page devoted to the Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin. The picture inside the little box showed two bubblegum-pink dolphins breaking through the dark blue waters with a headline proclaiming “Hong Kong’s Pink Dolphins”.

I was intrigued; I’d never heard about dolphins in Hong Kong’s waters and was fascinated to read that the pink colouration did not come from its diet (like the flamingo) but from its over-developed blood vessels that blush through its pale, white skin. At birth, the babies are black, then slowly change to grey and from grey they begin to pinken. All in all, a quite remarkable animal and one I vowed to one day see.

That opportunity came sooner than expected. The following year when planning a trip to Australia, I was given a choice of stopover destinations – one being Hong Kong. While most visitors would be eager to see Hong Kong’s top attractions such as taking the train to The Peak, experiencing Temple Street’s night market or visiting the giant Buddha on Lantau Island, I just wanted to see its pink dolphins. I’d been whale and dolphin watching all around the world and knew that there was no guarantee of a sighting of these sometimes-elusive creatures so I gave myself five days in Hong Kong to increase my chances of a sighting.

We landed in Hong Kong late at night but early the very next morning, we woke and caught the ferry across to Kowloon and made our way to the office of Hong Kong Dolphin Watch. Two smiling girls took our details and booked us on a trip the next day.

We clambered aboard our charter boat filled with excitement and we were the only Western faces on board – the rest of the seats being filled with equally excited, chattering Chinese families all keen to see the iconic pink dolphin.

However, as we chugged away from shore, I had serious misgivings that any cetacean could live in such waters. Tissue paper, cans and bottles floated upon the murky water. Surely no dolphin – let alone a bubblegum-pink one – could live in such squalid conditions but it wasn’t long before a shout went up and, in disbelief, we saw the white back of a dolphin – and then another.

Our young guide pointed to the stern of the boat and I watched in amazement as another dolphin (flushed with light pink) surfaced close by right next to a floating crisp packet. Of all my experiences with whales and dolphins, this one has stayed vividly in my mind; the strange juxtaposition of nature’s beauty and innocence against man’s ugliness and despoliation.

After the trip the young tour guide took me to one side and begged me to spread the word of the sad plight of Hong Kong’s exquisitely coloured dolphins for a new Disneyland complex was being planned and many feared  this would be detrimental to these enchanting sea mammals. To my shame, I didn’t do anything. I drew the conclusion that the plans had long been passed and the deal had been made. No letter of protest from me would make any difference.

I was correct; Disneyland opened in September 2005.

I have, however, always kept up to date with what is happening in Hong Kong and, over the past few years, I’ve been seriously alarmed by the drop in the pink dolphin population which has dwindled from an estimated 158 in 2003 to a mere 78 in 2011.

On April 28th 2013 a heartbreaking video of a mother dolphin and several family members appeared online. It showed them desperately trying to revive an obviously dead calf. It would have suffered a fate that befalls many of the young dolphins in these waters – poisoned by the toxins in their mother’s milk.

These creatures are fighting a desperate battle against water pollution, habitat loss and increased marine traffic and coastal development. And, now, what could well be the final nail in the species coffin, a proposed third runway that will result in the loss of 650 hectares of their already degraded habitat, not to mention the increased probability of collisions with marine traffic (while it’s being built) and the obvious detrimental effects such a construction will have on the water quality. Concerns have been loudly expressed but, in what seems to be a typical attitude of the Chinese government, it seems to be a case of build now, ask questions later.

This story bears strong similarities to the shameful extinction of another Chinese cetacean – the Baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin. The last verified sighting of this animal was in September 2004 and it was declared extinct after a 45-day extensive search by experts failed to find a single specimen.

The outcome really wasn’t too surprising given the environmental degradation and pollution of the Yangtze which, according to the Chinese environmentalist Dai Qing, was once so clear you could see a pen drop to its bottom. Now, it’s a filthy soup; its waters so dirty it’s been declared unfit for drinking.

Over the last 50 years there has been a 73% increase in pollution from the hundreds of cities that line its course, pouring 25bn tonnes of sewage and industrial waste into this once-wildlife rich river.

In addition to these pollutants there are also dangerously high levels of nitrogen (92% of which are said to emanate from intensive agriculture) and, in this river, at real threat of joining the Baiji in extinction, is yet another cetacean.

The beautiful freshwater Yangtze finless porpoise – a tiny, ever-smiling creature – ironically once represented luck and prosperity to the Chinese people (in far more enlightened times). But, now, there are less than 1,000 of these engaging little creatures left and, last year, 12 individuals were found dead in Dongting Lake. The animals had nothing in their stomachs – it appeared they’d starved to death. Read more about the plight of the porpoise here: http://yangtzefinlessporpoise.weebly.com/index.html

It’s ironic that millions are spent on saving China’s ‘national treasure’ – the panda – whilst real national treasures such as the Yangtze delta and Hong Kong’s iconic harbour along with their stunning wildlife are being vandalised and squandered.

And, it wasn’t always this way. Ancient Chinese philosophers believed that man could not set himself apart from or be in opposition to nature. They believed that both could and should live with respect for one another. Sadly, as in most places in the world, these wise customs have been cast aside in the relentless pursuit of money.

But, for a nation that leads the world in tonnage of fish caught and consumed, the health of the seas and rivers should be of paramount importance. There is obviously something very wrong going on in its marine and river environments. China should listen to the plight of its amazing cetaceans for they are giving it (and its people) a silent but stark warning – a warning all should listen to.

Read more about the good work of Hong Kong DolphinWatch here: http://www.hkdolphinwatch.com/

What we’d like to achieve is to raise the profile of the pink dolphin and bring the issue of its potential extinction to the wider world as it’s surprisingly relatively unknown. The next step is to work with relevant charities to protect this beautiful animal and, potentially, would like to have the dolphin ‘adopted’ as a mascot by all things pink such as the gay community and music stars, etc.

On 20th June 2013, the article was included in the ‘Whale & Dolphin Weekly’ http://paper.li/WhalesWorldwide/1363269846

 

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