It’s an unforgettable sight if you’re fortunate enough to spot one of Hong Kong’s famous pink dolphins swimming in the city’s surrounding waters. However, sightings of the beautiful mammals are becoming few and far between as growing concerns emerge over the threat to the species from pollution, heavy marine traffic and coastal development projects.
This year a government report revealed that the number of Chinese white dolphins in Hong Kong waters has hit a record low of 47. Calf numbers have also dipped to their lowest – only 17 were sighted over the past year.
This special breed is a variety of the Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin. They were first recorded in local waters as early as the 1600’s. However, it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that anyone really started studying and paying attention to them. The pink dolphin became the official mascot of Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997 raising their profile even further.
Although officially referred to as Chinese white dolphins, they have increasingly become known as pink dolphins as the white Chinese dolphins found in the waters around Hong Kong are of the pinkish variety.
The dolphins’ pink skin is due to the blood vessels which are in the outer layers of the skin. As they regulate their body temperature, excess heat is flushed out, producing the blush colour. When first born, the dolphins are black and then slowly turn grey. They then start developing spots and eventually turn pink or white when fully grown.
The record low number of pink dolphins recorded this year has sparked increased concern from local wildlife conservation groups such as WWF Hong Kong and Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. They attribute the decline in the number of the dolphins to expanding reclamation work in Hong Kong waters and high-speed marine traffic in the area.
One of the biggest threats has been the construction of the world’s largest sea bridge, The 55km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. In addition, work to build a third runway at Hong Kong’s International Airport has recently begun on Lantau Island, which is in a prime dolphin swimming area. The project will involve 650 hectares of land reclamation, dramatically reducing the dolphins’ habitat and further restricting their movement.
Pollution is also a big issue, which leads to disease and the premature death of dolphin calves. Hong Kong’s waters are highly contaminated with plastics, fertilisers and heavy metals, something that local conservation groups are trying to raise awareness of. WWF hopes that more resources can be given to the department for dolphin conservation work, or else face the devastating prospect of these unique dolphins disappearing from Hong Kong’s waters altogether.
For travellers wishing to see the dolphins, there is only one eco-tourism operator, Hong Kong DolphinWatch, whose mission is to raise awareness and funding for the endangered dolphins. The company runs three half-day trips a week, departing from Tung Chung on the northern side of Lantau Island, and boasts a 97% sighting rate.