In Pursuit of the Endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin
Officially categorized as “Vulnerable” by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), the Irrawaddy Dolphin, which lives in the Mekong River between Kratie, Cambodia and the Laos border, has numbers left in the wild as low as 70 (maybe less). They, along with many other fresh water river dolphins around Asia, are teetering on the edge of extinction due to poor fishing practices (by catch) and pollution. The WWF is currently working with the Cambodian government in order to protect these endangered animals and are providing tireless conservation.
As animal lovers, Alyse and I knew that when we travelled to Cambodia we would make seeing these beautiful river dolphins a priority as sadly, they may not be around the next time we come through Cambodia.
Our journey began at 7:00 am as our Tuk Tuk driver set off for the small village of Kampi about 17 kms north of the Kratie. For $9 USD each, we were able to charter our own boat and “guide”.
As we left the small port in Kampi and cruised north, we were taken aback by the spectacular views of the Mekong River as the early morning sun bounced off the waves and fisherman in tiny boats paddled by with their morning catch already in hand. As we sailed along the iconic river, we kept our heads on a swivel knowing that the Irrawaddy Dolphin can be difficult to spot, rarely showing its tail when it comes up for air. Visibility is very poor into the Mekong River, primarily from the rapids being extremely silty (giving it a reddish brown colour) and unfortunately also from pollution.
After 20 minutes of nervously scanning the mighty Mekong River, I caught my first glimpse of the elusive dolphins in the distance. I’m pretty sure my heart skipped a few beats as I waved my hands like a maniac trying to get Alyse’s attention!
After a few minutes the two dolphins disappeared into the rust coloured river and so we continued north. Once again it didn’t take long for me to get concerned about missing out on seeing the dolphins up close as 5 minutes turned into 10, then 20, and then 30 minutes without a sighting. All of sudden as if they could read my mind, they appeared! A pod of four Irrawaddy Dolphins were frolicking (can dolphins frolic?) about 60 yards in front of us. The guide cut the engine and we paddled towards a small inlet where another small boat was so that we could sit still and watch them. We learned that the Irrawaddy Dolphin loves to live around the lush mangroves of the Mekong which provide both shelter and the best place for them to find food (small fish and crustaceans).
As we stopped the engine and sat quietly waiting for the dolphins to surface, our guide started to talk loudly with the guide on the next boat. So loud in fact that Alyse and I actually shushed them! I don’t remember the last time I shushed someone but I mean come on! I guess this is the attitude that can creep up on you when you make this trip multiple times per day even if you are visiting a species on the verge of extinction.
Watching them swim, splash and play with each other was truly a magical experience. Every time they ducked down under the water, we were practically holding our breath wondering when and where they were going to pop up next! One thing that stood out to us the most was how poor the visibility is in the rust coloured Mekong waters, yet they have no problem using their sonar to navigate their way. After a few minutes the dolphins had moved on so we quietly followed behind them and as we did this, something magical happened.
The dolphins turned and started swimming towards us! All four of them were now within 10 yards of us! This was one of the most amazing experiences of our lives as the dolphins were now beside our boat, so close that we could actually hear them breathing. Then from the back of the boat I hear, “Sir, we go back now please?”. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me? I think I cocked my head to one side like a dog not understanding a new command from its owner. I took a deep breath and whispered to him, “No…how about we stay a few more minutes…seeing as the dolphins are beside our boat?!”. All Alyse and I can do now when thinking about that is laugh but at the time I wanted to shake his head to see if I could hear a rattle.
This experience of seeing fresh water dolphins on the cusp of extinction, was an outstanding experience for Alyse and I. We have always felt a kindred spirit with dolphins and this experience just further solidified those feelings. With the Irrawaddy dolphin’s numbers as low as 70 and with new calves dying off at an alarmingly high rate, we consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have seen these gentle animals in their natural habitat.
For those of you interested in supporting the Irrawaddy Dolphins, the World Wildlife Foundation has a program to “Adopt a Dolphin” where you can donate as little as $25 towards their conservation work. If this sounds cool to you, check out their website here.
Ross and Alyse