As I stand in the bow of a 35-foot boat cutting through Hong Kong’s busy harbor, a dolphin rockets out of the blue-gray waters, his rosy body marked with old scars. This startlingly pink old male breaching off the starboard bow is an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, native to the waters surrounding Hong Kong.
Calves are born slate-gray, but as they grow, the gray fades to mottled pink. Adults are a pure white color that often flushes to rose. Standing next to me in the bow, Samuel Hung, director of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, smiles as he recognizes the scar pattern on the dolphin to the right of us. This battered creature is an old friend.
“That’s EL01,” Hung tells me. “He’s been here since the early 1990s. From those marks, I can tell that he must be a warrior.”
Little is known about the private life of south China’s Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, which is known here as the Chinese white dolphin. But Hung, who has been studying this population since he was a graduate student and EL01 was young, guesses that the male earned his scars battling for mates.
Although these dolphins are beloved local icons—they were Hong Kong’s official mascot in 1997 when the British ceded power to China, and that year their image adorned flags all over the city—massive construction projects around the busy harbor are threatening the region’s population. EL01 might be a warrior, but unless Hong Kong’s government moves to protect the local dolphin population, this could be one fight that he and his fellows can’t win.
Indo-Pacific white dolphins thrive in the shallow, murky waters of coastal estuaries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Small populations exist at river mouths scattered from South Africa to southeastern China. New genetic evidence suggests that these dolphins comprise four distinct species separated by geography and differences in behavior. No one knows how many exist in the world, and many populations have never been studied, but each population faces threats in their corners of the sea.
More than a century ago, the fishermen who plied Hong Kong’s waters in small boats revered these animals. As the city grew from a fishing village to an international economic powerhouse—with the busiest harbor on the planet—the dolphins have paid the price. The Hong Kong population had already plummeted to 158 animals in the early 2000s; by last year, Hung’s census found just 60 left.
Hong Kong’s government only began to fund studies of the local dolphins when construction of Chek Lap Kok airport started in the 1990s. Built on landfill stretching into the harbor, the airport obliterated prime dolphin habitat. Machines drove pilings deep into the harbor floor with a deafening din. The noise overlapped with the same frequencies that dolphins use to communicate and locate prey. Sound is vital to all dolphins, Hung notes, but because Chinese white dolphins live in turbid water, they’re even more dependent on their ears.
As the city grew from a fishing village to an international economic powerhouse—with the busiest harbor on the planet—the dolphins have paid the price.
During airport construction, dolphins fled the area, though some returned after things settled down—only to encounter new threats. Dolphin “eco-tours” sprang up in Hong Kong; Hung says they often harass the animals, getting too close and moving too fast. High-speed, hydrofoil ferries that shuttle passengers between central Hong Kong and outlying islands added to the danger. Dolphins that wash up dead in the area have often been seriously wounded—slashed by propellers, their bodies beaten against hulls. Last May, tourists on a dolphin-watch boat were stunned to see a mother dolphin and several other adults struggling to keep a dead calf afloat. The incident made headlines in the South China Morning Post.
The bodies of stranded dolphins also contain high levels of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT. These chemicals accumulate in living tissue, so predators like dolphins swallow heavy doses with their prey. DDT, which is still used in mainland China, can suppress immune responses, making animals more susceptible to infection. Recent research suggests these pollutants may be a major driver in the local dolphin population’s decline.
The dolphins that spend time near Hong Kong are part of a larger population of more than 2,000 that inhabits the Pearl River estuary, which begins in mainland China and sweeps toward the Hong Kong coast. That larger population is in peril, as well. A recent study forecasts that more than 74 percent of the population will disappear within three generations.
The Hong Kong dolphins may have even less time. The international airport was just the beginning of a major construction onslaught; a fuel-receiving station and Disneyland resort were also built on landfill poured into pockets of water once frequented by dolphins. A long bridge that will connect Hong Kong with mainland China and Macau is under construction. It will cut through crucial habitat for the last of Hong Kong’s dolphins, at a spot where two different social groups intermix and mothers often forage with their calves. Even the threat from the airport hasn’t ended: Hong Kong’s government is now considering adding a controversial third runway, which would devour more of the dolphins’ dwindling habitat.
Hung says the runway decision will be a test of whether Hong Kong’s government can commit to protecting the dolphins. He notes that recommendations from the city’s Advisory Council on the Environment are usually respected, but that most of its members have no environmental background.
While development advocates claim that the airport expansion is essential to Hong Kong’s economy, grassroots activists argue that it would not only harm the dolphins, but it would also add to already intense noise and air pollution. Diverting some flights to airports in neighboring cities could be a better solution, both for the dolphins and the people, though that option conflicts with the drive for ever-increasing development ingrained in Hong Kong’s culture. There’s no way of knowing when the government will make a decision, but with enough pressure, it may make the right one—one that would allow Hong Kong’s pale icons to survive.