Rare Indo-Pacific humpbacks, or “pink dolphins,” are returning to the waters between Hong Kong and Macau after the COVID-19 pandemic halted ferries, but scientists remain deeply concerned about their long-term survival in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
The tell-tale flash of pink leaping from the waters alerts Naomi Brennan to the presence of a local pink dolphin and she jots the animal’s location into a GPS device.
Conservationists such as Brennan regularly board boats in the Pearl River Delta to document how the mammals, known for their eye-catching pink coloring, are faring.
“Today we encountered three different groups of dolphins — six adults and two sub-adults,” she said. “They were engaging in a range of behavior, from feeding to traveling and socializing.”
For years, keeping tabs on the dolphins has been a disheartening task, as the population has fallen by 70 to 80 percent over the past 15 years in what is one of the world’s most industrialized estuaries.
However, their numbers this year have bounced back — and they have the pandemic to thank.
Ferries between Hong Kong and Macau have been suspended since February, providing local marine scientists an opportunity to study how the mammals have adapted to the “unprecedented quiet.”
“We’re seeing much larger group sizes, as well as much more socializing, mating behavior — which we hadn’t really been seeing for the last five years or so,” Hong Kong-based marine biologist Lindsay Porter said.
Porter’s research team said that the number of pink dolphins has increased by about one-third in those waters since March.
“These areas seem to be important for feeding and socializing, so it’s great that there’s this refuge for them,” added Brennan, a member of Porter’s team.
The Pearl River Delta is one of the most industrialized coastal areas in the world. As well as Hong Kong and Macao, it includes Chinese mainland megacities such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan, and is home to about 22 million people.
According to the WWF, there are only an estimated 2,000 pink dolphins left in the Pearl River Delta — the minimum number that conservationists believe is needed to sustain the species.
There is a fear that the delta’s dolphins could go extinct under the population’s current trajectory.
“Dolphins, and especially these estuarine dolphins, have a slow birthrate, a slow growth rate, a slow reproductive rate,” WWF-Hong Kong oceans conservation head Laurence McCook said. “So they need very careful management.”
The lack of ferries is a welcome, but potentially brief, respite for the dolphins.
Noise from vessels disturbs mammals that rely on underwater sound for navigation and communication.
The ships also pose the physical threat of striking the creatures, injuring and even killing them.
Conservationists are campaigning to expand an existing marine park to better protect the vulnerable species.
“We’ve now identified a habitat that could then be reclaimed by them and could really be used to support their population,” Brennan said. “The fact that we’ve seen such a dramatic change, though still early days, from just one of those impacts going away is a really positive shift.”
However, McCook said that time is running out for the dolphins.
“They’re an icon of the area,” he said. “They’re a part of Cantonese heritage. They’ve been around here for millennia. It would be a global tragedy to lose this iconic creature from the future of the Greater Bay Area.”
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