Friday, September 08, 2006

The Irrawaddy dolphin does not share Flipper's attitude!

Don't expect to get a photograph of yourself patting the Irrawaddy dolphin. This is not the ultra-friendly dolphin that you see on TV bow-riding (swimming next to the bow of a moving boat) or performing acrobatic stunts above water.

In fact, photographing the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) at the Santubong peninsula in Sarawak is a challenge even to a relatively experienced dolphin researcher. Marine biologist Louisa Ponnampalam finds them “elusive and uncooperative”.

Irrawaddy dolphins surfacing at the Santubong estuary in southwest Sarawak. – Pictures by WAYNE TARMANThe University of London student-researcher first learnt of the Sarawak Irrawaddy dolphin through a blog and decided to pay them a visit during her summer vacation back home in Malaysia. Her group was not disappointed. They encountered some 20 dolphins in different groups at the Salak estuary.

“Irrawaddy dolphins are certainly a difficult species to photograph as they seem to have unpredictable surfacing patterns. They are definitely less gregarious compared with spinner dolphins and are not the most spectacular cetacean species,” says Louisa, who is pursuing a doctorate in the ecology of small cetacean in Oman.

The tourism industry in Sarawak is currently abuzz with dolphin-watching tours. Located about 45km north of Kuching, the estuaries of Buntal, Santubong, Salak and Sibu rivers are quietly attracting scores of tourists.

“Last year, we recorded 1,008 tourists but this year we are handling between 40 and 50 guests a week and even up to 100 sometimes. It’s getting very popular,” reveals William Choo, director of operations of Kuching-based CPH Travel Agencies Sdn Bhd, a pioneer in the business.

When Choo developed the unique tour in 1998, few in Sarawak were aware of the dolphins on the state’s coast.

“After two years, we began selling the package overseas through our agents and demand gradually grew and it became a hit among the Brits, Swedes and Australians. It was only in 2003 that local tourists became interested,” says Choo, 63.

CPH conducts up to three cruises a day, using a 115 horsepower 28-footer fibreglass boat that carries 10 passengers.

Raised in Sedungus, an islet in the Santubong estuary, Choo learnt of the dolphins from angling trips with his grandfather. Creating the dolphin-watch tour is akin to going back to his roots. Inheriting the 40-year-old business – the company bears the initials of his father Choo Poh Hin – that specialises in nature and cultural tours, Choo recognised the potential of his childhood playground as an eco-tourism product.

He began by taking tourists to view mangrove forests, home to wildlife such as monkeys, leaf monkeys, crocodiles, fireflies, and the dolphins.

Choo says the Irrawaddy dolphin is a big draw for Westerners because of its endangered status and the fact that it is only found in the Indo-Pacific region (from eastern India to northern Australia), unlike the widely distributed spinner and bottlenose dolphins.

Nature tourism received a boost four years ago when 6,610ha of mangroves was turned into the Kuching Wetland National Park. Last November, the park was designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that promotes wetlands conservation.

Responding to the growing popularity of dolphin-watching, the Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) recently published a booklet Introducing the Irrawaddy Dolphins of Sarawak, Malaysia. Authored by travel consultants Wayne Tarman and Mike Reed, the booklet introduces the species, where it is found and it’s association with local fishing communities.

But there is growing concern over unscrupulous tour operators. “We have operators hiring inexperienced boatmen who would just barge into the middle of a pod of dolphins and chase them around the bay. They have no knowledge on how to approach the dolphins. They scare away the dolphins and there is always the danger of injuring the animals. We have spotted dolphins with severed dorsal fins,” laments Choo.

One of Choo’s workers, Jamadi Ghazali, can spot dolphins from afar, way before anyone else does. Once he sees the dolphins, he slows down his boat and cruises slowly towards the pod, keeping a discreet distance of at least 10m.

The former fisherman says the fishing community is familiar with the dolphins as the marine mammal tends to congregate around fishing boats in the bay where the fish are. Some have become so tame that they would take fish discarded by fishermen as the nets are hauled in.
It is understood that STB is planning a three-day course to address unregulated dolphin-watching tours.

The Irrawaddy dolphin is a totally protected species under the state Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998, which carries a penalty of a maximum fine of RM25,000 and a jail term of two years.

Sarawak Forestry Corporation senior manager (biodiversity conservation) Oswald Braken Tisen says: “We will work with STB to come out with a dolphin-watch etiquette and best practices as uncontrolled tourism activities might have an adverse impact on the animal.” He adds that some form of conservation tax may be considered to benefit the species in the long run.

He admits that there is now no conservation programme for marine mammals in Sarawak waters.
A 2001 joint survey by the then Sarawak Forest Department’s National Parks and Wildlife Division and Universiti Malaysia Sabah showed the Irrawaddy dolphin to be the most common cetacean in Sarawak.

Other dolphin species that inhabit the in-shore waters of Sarawak are the Risso’s dolphin, Fraser’s dolphin and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin. Bigger marine mammals such as Bryde’s whale, killer whale, pygmy sperm whale and sperm whale have also been documented.

The survey concluded that the rich cetacean composition and distribution requires a comprehensive conservation management programme. That may just happen over the next five years as the state has requested for research funding under the Ninth Malaysian Plan.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"