In the pink of health?

Photo: Dr Samuel Hung

Hong Kong’s famous dolphins are under threat from all sides, including from some of the supposed ecotourism operators who run trips to see them

Sophie Tang

Photo: Dr Samuel Hung

Many visitors are surprised to hear there are dolphins in Hong Kong waters. The towering city blocks and bustling harbour with its decidedly murky waters are hard to square with a marine mammal more commonly associated with pristine, crystal blue waters brimming with marine life.

Nevertheless, Hong Kong is richly diverse with 1,000 species of fish and 80 hard coral species recorded, making its waters potentially more varied than even those in the Caribbean. At one time reef sharks were abundant here though they are now extinct in local waters, and even manta rays used to drop by.

At the pinnacle of this pyramid of life today, as the top predators aside from the occasional visiting shark, are the two year-round cetacean populations – those of the Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin, locally known as the Chinese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis chinensis), and the finless porpoise.

Of these, the Chinese white dolphin is especially important as Hong Kong is home to a significant percentage of the world population. It is also, being more pink than white when fully grown, a photogenic and unusual sight which has led to dolphin watching becoming a major contributor to the value of ecotourism in Hong Kong in recent years.

Dolphin-watching tours head out from the northern coast of Lantau Island several times a week. Departing in the early morning, they take visitors out west of Lantau, Lamma and the Soko Islands, and the best of them include a guide who will describe the origins, ecology and habitat of the animals while waiting for a sighting. By educating visitors and following a proper code of conduct themselves, they hope to minimise impacts on the animals and therefore make dolphin watching sustainable.

In recognition of the humpbacked dolphins’ rising profile, it was chosen as the official symbol of the 1997 transition of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule. Despite fears for the city in some quarters, since that time the city’s economic growth has continued unhindered but along the way, the threats the dolphins face in the wild have also grown.

Entrenched in a growth-oriented mentality, Hong Kong has serious gaps in its conservation strategies and these are allowing the sea to be exploited. Even today, in ‘Asia’s world city’, it is used as the most convenient solution to dealing with the increasing problems of sewerage disposal and its seabed also suffers widespread disturbance from reclamation works and unsustainable fishing practices.
Being at the top of the food chain, dolphins are good indicators of the state of our waters. They can do well only if they can find the fish species they feed on and in Hong Kong waters, stocks of many of these species have long been pressured by overfishing. Dolphins are also prone to suffer the effects of bioaccumulation: the aggregation of harmful substance in their bodies derived from pollutants within their food species.

With all these threats ranked against them and their habitat, dolphins need friends. Both Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong fishermen respect the dolphins (in Chinese called lo ting) because they have been described in ancient chronicles to bow ride and protect fishermen. There is also a local myth that they are spirits of deceased fishermen, so that harming them is considered to be bad luck. That has allowed the dolphins to escape the fate of so many other species in Hong Kong waters but nevertheless some have been found to drown in trawl and gill nets while feeding off the catch behind boats. Given this overlap in their diet and ours, the current situation of overfishing in the territory poses a real threat to the survival.

Senior Tour Coordinator at Hong Kong DolphinWatch, Janet Walker remarks, “I feel like I’ve been banging my head against a wall for the past 12 years.” As a member of the Coalition for Sustainable Tourism, Walker and a group of conservationists, tourism industry practitioners, spa developers and nature lovers meet several times a year to examine various topics including the critical issue of how to promote Hong Kong as an eco-stop and not just another city you stop to shop.

One of Walker’s personal goals is to urge the government to promote sustainable tourism by regulating the dolphin watching industry through licensing. This could see dolphin-watching operators having to pass a trade test and having to agree to follow an internationally recognised code of conduct. Currently there is no such test and so many boat owners run cut-price tours that skimp on the educational benefits in favour of a quick view of the animals.

Dr Samuel Hung, Chairman of Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society and a cetacean expert is no stranger to the ‘wild behaviour’ of the Tai O dolphin operators locally known as wala wala.

“Directly translating from the Cantonese for ‘nature sightseeing’, Hong Kong people think going out to see nature classifies as ecotourism, without realising the basic principle is not to create any negative impacts while you are on these tours. Wala walas operate in a very strange way. By charging only HK$20 per person, carrying up to ten people per boat, they have to make many quick trips to earn more. That’s why they chase and disturb the dolphins at sightings and radio all affiliated boats to speed into the same area.”

DolphinWatch’s suggested code of contact would allow for only one vessel within 500m of a group of dolphins at any time, while other vessels wait outside this zone. Operators should never approach dolphins head-on, but at an angle from the side, get no closer than 50m and at a reduced speed of less than 5 knots. The guidelines also advise the public and operators to watch from a distance, not to seek contact, touch or feed the dolphins. Most importantly, respect the dolphins and give them the space to approach or leave the area as they wish.

Dolphins like shallow tropical to warm temperate coastal waters, particularly near estuarine waters such as at river mouths. The Pearl River Delta and the western waters of Hong Kong are therefore a favoured habitat but with space at a premium for all the inhabitants of Hong Kong, this brings them into close proximity with man and his needs.

Famous landmarks such as the Hong Kong International Airport and Disneyland Resort at Penny’s Bay were built on reclaimed land right on top of ‘dolphin estate’. Walker remembers a government official declaring at one meeting, “If the dolphins don’t like it, why can’t they go somewhere else!”

Even if dolphins return after the developments are completed, as has been observed, we cannot automatically assume this means they are not affected. “People take for granted how resilient this population is after the many threats they have already faced”,  says Dr Andy Cornish, Director of Conservation at WWF Hong Kong. He heads the team lobbying the government to designate the Soko Islands, southwest Lantau, Tai O and the Brothers Islands as marine parks before further construction in the western waters begins. “We still have a little time. The pace of conservation has to catch up with the pace of development or else the dolphins will be in trouble”.

In this Dr Cornish is echoing a sermon others have been preaching for years. Without any long-term strategic planning, more and more developments are planned around the western islands, impacting on high-density dolphin areas. These projects include the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and border crossing facilities, the Chek Lap Kok link to Tuen Mun, more developments in the Tung Chung district, a logistic park, a third airport runway, Penny’s Bay reclamation phase II, the Hong Kong-Shenzhen airport rail link and a contaminated mud disposal south of the Brothers Islands.

“The biggest issue with Hong Kong’s environmental impact assessment is that cumulative impacts, past or present, are rarely taken into account”, continues Dr Cornish, “Just about every possible threat to dolphins worldwide is located here in one place.”

There are some signs of progress though. “Highways Department was supportive of the designation of more marine parks during a recent meeting, and will recommend to higher authorities that they are implemented as a critical measure to protect the Chinese white dolphin”, said Dr Guillermo Moreno, WWF Hong Kong’s Head of Marine Programme, quoted in a recent WWF press release.
Although Dr Hung agrees with the proposal of more marine parks, he still believes the focus should be on better governing our activities and long-term monitoring in response to human developments.

When asked about the future of dolphin watching, he replies without hesitation. “There’s no place for ecotourism in Hong Kong”, he says, “because of the lack of government support and because it [the current situation of dolphin watching] is not sustainable at all. It’s too easy for anyone to become an operator tomorrow!”

He expects the cheaper boats will beat out the competition, perhaps ultimately leading to collapse of the industry, as has been the case in Taiwan. “It is baffling why Hong Kong people will pay AU$100 to see dolphins in Australia and not even AU$10 to a local dolphin operator. Why are dolphins overseas more valuable?”

Dr Hung points out that ecotours tend to be expensive in order to cover the costs of the boat’s upkeep and of hiring qualified interpreters – not just to provide a great time but to make it an educational experience. That’s not to say all tourists value this. Walker is often approached by customers who want to know how long the dolphin sightings will last so they can decide if they are getting their money’s worth! These people have to be taught to value leaving the boat not just with photos and videos, but also having learnt more about the animals and their needs.

New Zealand is an example of how this can work. There ecotourism is often protected by a model that sees only one or two tour-operating licences granted per location. In Kaikoura on the east coast of the South Island, there is a booming business in trips to see the year-round offshore attractions including sperm whales, orca, fur seals, pods of dusky dolphins and the endangered Wandering Albatoss. As the only ones entitled to a whale-watching licence, the indigenous Kati Kuri people, a Maori sub-tribe, plough their profits back into providing more accommodation, restaurants, cafes and galleries featuring local artists, but most importantly an educational centre for the public to learn more about whales. There conservation has helped to pay for development of the community.

In space-constrained Hong Kong, construction is likely always to be king. Marine experts such as Drs Cornish and Hung though hope that the government will give conservation a chance before further development takes place in areas frequented by the dolphins. The ban on commercial fishing in marine parks announced in 2008 was a landmark move. Once it is implemented (in one to two years’ time), WWF Hong Kong is optimistic that, as has been shown in past studies elsewhere, fisheries will recover within the following five years. More fish should means more food and a surer future for the dolphins.

That’s a hopeful beginning but it is still vital that proper ecotourism principles take root in Hong Kong. Otherwise such positive steps will come too late for the city’s unlikeliest resident.    ??


People wishing to see the dolphins are recommended to avoid the cheap wala wala boats that go out from Tai O.

At present, HK Dolphinwatch ( are the only operator following the correct procedures so reward them with your business. Their trips begin with a bus pick up from the heart of the city.