Chinese White Dolphin, Sousa chinensis chinensis (known as rare pink dolphins)

The Chinese white dolphin, otherwise known as the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, is a species of humpback dolphin that can be found in the waters of Southeast Asia. When breeding, they will travel to the waters around South Africa to Australia.  There are currently two recognized subspecies of the Chinese white dolphin.

The coloring of the Chinese white dolphin can vary due to age and location. When born, calves are actually black, but will change to grey, then pink with white spotting, and eventually all white at the adult stage. The populations of these dolphins on the Chinese coast have pink skin, caused by the overdeveloped blood vessels used for temperature control.  This causes the confusion that the Chinese white dolphin is an albino. The average length of an adult dolphin is between 6.7 and 11.6 feet and it can weigh up to 510 pounds.

Chinese white dolphins live in social groups of up to four individuals. Every twenty to thirty seconds, the group will rise to the surface of the water to breath, and young dolphins do this twice as often due to smaller lung capacities. Diving into deep water, adults can remain underwater for up to eight minutes, while young dolphins can only remain for up to three. Despite this, they prefer to stay under water for approximately four minutes. They have eyes that are capable of seeing well both above and under water.

In Cantonese slang, the Chinese white dolphin received the bad name of wu gei bak gei, meaning “black taboo white taboo”. This phrase, which came from Cantonese fishers, means a person or thing that is a nuisance or a bad omen. The dolphins were called this because they ate the fish from the nets of the fishers. Despite this, if written in traditional Chinese, gei means dolphin, instead of bad luck. Today, dolphins are no longer called wu gei bak gei, but hoi tuen, which means “sea pig”.

For over a decade, Hong Kong Dolphinwatch has provided a service that allows citizens to watch the Chinese white dolphin from a boat. The primary purpose of the trips is to raise awareness of the dolphins amongst citizens. The main populations appear in the North and Southeast waters of Lantau, as well as Peng Chau and the Soko Islands.  When conducting these activities, Hong Kong Dolphinwatch strictly observes the code of conduct for dolphin-watching activities. Ten percent of all the proceeds collected from the dolphin watching go to Friends of the Earth Hong Kong’s Water Action Group, and this organization helps to raise awareness of the coastal environments of Hong Kong.

Despite the efforts to raise awareness and provide entertaining education about the Chinese white dolphin, some small, private “tours” have actually damaged the dolphin population. Typically, these dolphin watchers do not follow the Hong Kong Agricultural and Fisheries Department’s code of conduct, which is voluntary. In order to keep the dolphins safe, it is best to watch them from a distance, and never attempt to feed, touch, or harm the dolphins. The code also states the boat should have a slow pace, never exceeding ten knots that is always parallel to the dolphin’s course.

The Chinese white dolphin, first discovered by Peter Mundy near the Pearl River, is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) as having an unfavorable conservation status, meaning it would benefit from human efforts to bolster its populations. The Chinese white dolphin is also listed by the Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and Their Habitats in the Pacific Islands Region.

Since the late 1980’s, the Chinese white dolphin has maintained an amount of awareness among the citizens and government in Hong Kong. This first occurred in 1990, when the efforts to reclaim 5.5 miles of ocean in order to build the Chek Lap Kok Airport began. The area chosen for the airport near Northern Lantau was a major habitat for the dolphins.  In 1993, a reassessment of the effects on the environment caused by the building of Chek Lap Kok Airport alerted activists from organizations like World Wide Fund for Nature in Hong Kong. After the media noticed the efforts, the Hong Kong Government decided to fund research projects in order to understand and help the Chinese white dolphins.

Many other events contributed to awareness of the Chinese white dolphin, including the founding of The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department in 1993. Dr. Thomas Jefferson began conducting research on the dolphins in 1993 and published the results in 1998, and in 1997, the Chinese white dolphin became the official mascot of sovereignty changing ceremonies in Hong Kong.  In 1998, Hong Kong Dolphinwatch was created, and as of 2000, the population of dolphins in the Pearl River was estimated to be between 80 to 140 individuals. The IUCN has listed the Chinese white dolphin as “Near Threatened”.

Image Caption: Pink river dolphin. Credit: takoradee/Wikipedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)