Chinese white dolphin

First Person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2007, 12:00am

The Pink Dolphin, also known as the Chinese White Dolphin, was the mascot of the 1997 handover. Yet 10 years on, that status hasn't brought it the protection it deserves, says Janet Walker, senior tour conductor with Hong Kong Dolphinwatch

There are diaries written by explorers 300 to 400 years ago in which they talk about ghostly pinkish dolphins in Hong Kong's waters. So they have always been here and they have always been pink. It's not that they are mutating because of the pollution as is suggested.

There are probably 100 to 200 pink dolphins which make Hong Kong their main habitat. The theories as to why they are pink vary. The babies are born black or dark grey but they lose their pigment and become white. The blush effect comes when they are swimming and their blood starts to pump.

One theory is that like an animal which lives in a cave loses its pigmentation because of lack of sunlight, the dolphin loses it with swimming in such murky waters. Other scientists have suggested it is because the Pearl River Delta is not ideal for sharks. So as the dolphin has no natural predators, they have lost the need for camouflage.

In fact, man is the only threat to the pink dolphins. Everything which is bothering them - the pollution, the over-fishing, the land reclamation - is our doing. They are protected, but not officially endangered.

I joined Hong Kong Dolphinwatch in 1997 and during those 10 years all the things that I have been banging on about harming the dolphins have just got worse. There is more reclamation, the fishing situation has got worse, the WWF is very concerned about fish stocks being on the brink of collapse, boat traffic has picked up - and then there is pollution.

Dolphinwatch was started in 1995 by an American named Bill Leverett. Dolphin and whale watching is big business in some countries and done properly it can raise awareness of dolphins, entertain the tourists and be very successful. He had seen the dolphins with Friends of the Earth and he couldn't believe no one was trying to raise awareness here.

We do scheduled trips three days a week and lots of school trips and private charters. We are usually on the water about three hours, panicking until we find them. Seeing them depends on the time of the year, the tides and the weather. We see them about 97 per cent of the time. If we don't, we promise to take you again free.

It's a very impressive experience, especially if you have only ever seen them in an aquarium before. I remember one little girl said: 'Mummy where is the dolphin?' I told her they were out there somewhere and she asked: 'But where's the ball?'

There are not that many wild animals that are accessible and I think it is very important, especially for kids, to be able to go and see something like this and see there is more to life than concrete and pet cats and dogs. It is not just a sightseeing thing; it's about raising awareness.

There is a lot of mystique about dolphins. We get a lot of people anthropomorphising, attributing human characteristics and qualities to them. We also get people dangling crystals over the water and trying to communicate with them, or sending healing lights because of the damage we have done to them.

Right now we are in the breeding and calving season so there should be quite a few babies around in the next few weeks. But in the summer we always find a handful of dead babies poisoned from the toxins in mum's milk. It's very distressing. Pollution, net entanglement and boat traffic are the main causes of death. Very few dolphins live to be 30 to 40 years old. If they survive five or 10 years of adulthood into their 20s, they are doing quite well.

We would love to see a moratorium on land reclamation and development but we know that is not going to happen. It is feasible to work with the fishermen's groups and come up with a sustainable plan which would help both fishermen and dolphins.

But there needs to be a lot more willpower about controlling sewage disposal. A lot of what it comes down to unfortunately is the government and, in Hong Kong, development and things that make money come first. Saying an animal is cute, cuddly, and a symbol of the handover even, just isn't enough.

For more information on the pink dolphin see