Research center for rare Chinese white dolphins established
BEIJING — Increasing awareness about environmental issues and the protection of biodiversity has helped restore the number of Chinese white dolphins in Sanniang Bay.
The beach, sea and splendid sunshine might make the bay in Qinzhou, southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, look like nothing more than a typical coastal resort, but Sanniang has, in a way, always transcended its counterparts by being a natural home of the Chinese white dolphin, the importance of which has long been regarded on a par with the giant panda.
The ancestors of the white dolphin are said to date back to roughly 10 million years. A portion of the ancestral population departed Australia approximately 8 million years ago and headed northwest toward Indonesia’s Sunda archipelago, before continuing onward toward the South China Sea.
Long-term evolution has granted the white dolphins in Sanniang Bay unique physical features and genes.
Their age can be determined by their skin color, which continues to change as they grow older.
While dolphin pups are usually dark gray, young dolphins turn a lighter shade of gray and develop white spots. Adults in the species take on an off-white hue, while elderly members of the species turn snow-white.
“White dolphins are a flagship species (in the ocean), and if we protect them, we are practically protecting tens of thousands of other creatures in the area,” says Peking University professor Pan Wenshi.
Pan has long been committed to bioscience studies and played an important role in protecting the giant panda and white-headed langur－one of the rarest primates in the world. His work has won him awards both at home and abroad, including the J. Paul Getty Award for Conservation Leadership from the World Wildlife Fund.
Pan became aware of Sanniang Bay’s marine mammal population after attending a seminar about them in Guangxi in 2004.
“Expert opinions varied when it came to estimating the number of white dolphins in the area,” Pan, 81, recalls.
Some said there were 200 of the mammals in the Sanniang Bay area, while others put the figure at over 1,000.
“I could only spot the ones aged from 9 to 11, with my own eyes at that time,” Pan says.
This inconsistency－and a life-changing childhood encounter with the mammals－spurred Pan to settle down in the bay area and study the dolphins in more detail.
One summer, when he was 10 years old, and while swimming off the coast of Shantou, Guangdong province, Pan found himself drowning.
On the verge of death, he was suddenly rescued by two dolphins who kept Pan’s head above the water as they carried him back to shore.
As his aquatic skills matured, Pan continued swimming in the sea, where he often found a gray-white dolphin by his side.
“I could see its beady black eyes and the rows of cone-shaped teeth in its mouth,” he recalls.
“It didn’t seem to object when I held my hand out to touch its slippery, tight skin.”
However, things were rough at the beginning when Pan began to study the Chinese white dolphins, as little was known about their subaquatic life and funding was not readily available.
“I had to go out to sea with the local fishermen when they went out in their small fishing boats,” Pan says. “The ride was bumpy and I threw up a lot.”
Pan only caught a glimpse of his first dolphin after three days at sea.
To prove Sanniang Bay was a base for Chinese white dolphins and secure funding from Peking University to set up a biodiversity research centre in the area, Pan had to come up with an idea.
He asked local officials to help him locate trawlers in the area, as he knew the contents of their nets would attract the dolphins.
However, once he proved his point and built the research facility, Pan immediately called a halt to the proceedings.
“Trawlers damage the structure of the sea floor, which adversely affects marine life,” he explains.
By a process of trial and error, Pan gradually got locating the dolphins down to a fine art.
Immediately before, or just after, the tide rises to its peak, shoals of fish would move closer to the coast and white dolphins would follow them, making them easier to spot, Pan says.
He would go to sea for a couple of hours a day, around 10 to 15 days a month, and used digital cameras to take thousands of photos of the marine mammals.
“You have to catch the moment where the dolphins take a breath, when their backs emerge from out of the water,” Pan says.
Every Chinese white dolphin is unique, from the colour of their skin and their markings, down to the shape of their dorsal fins.
The task of processing the photos was as huge as it was painstaking, says Wei Meijiao, a worker at the local white dolphin research facility established by Pan.
Differences between the whiter dolphins are relatively easy to spot. The gray ones, however, are often so difficult to tell apart that scientists rely on software to identify them, Wei adds.
They also have to keep track of every dolphin to accurately calculate population numbers. At the same time, Pan has also suggested to the local government that local industrial projects be moved west of the bay to help keep the shallow coastal waters, where the white dolphins live, intact.
The local government has also prohibited large-scale trawling and excessive fishing in the area.
These arrangements have helped the number of white dolphins to grow from 100 in 2006 to around 230 today.
Before Pan received enough funding to purchase a yacht for the research facility in 2012, his team relied on local fishermen to keep track of white dolphin numbers.
Locals had long come to realize that Pan’s work ultimately benefited their own lives, and regularly took him out to the sea for free. Perhaps, more importantly, their awareness of white dolphin protection has risen significantly, thanks to Pan’s work.
“All of us fishermen have realized that we should protect the dolphins,” says Lin Sange, who has been helping Pan to keep tabs on Chinese white dolphins for more than a decade.
“If the dolphins leave, it means there are no fish left here－and we would suffer,” he adds.
Lin usually goes fishing in deeper waters with a couple of fishermen two or three times a week, depending on the weather.
His work includes recording the sounds the white dolphins make and taking pictures of them, as well as measuring the depth of the sea.
“I see the dolphins nine times out of 10,” Lin says.
Lin used to be in the business of taking tourists to the sea to watch the dolphins, and readily joined Pan’s cause when he saw how big trawlers, illegal breeding and sand digging had started to affect the animal’s habitat.
Currently, Lin and three other fishermen are part of Pan’s team and the job has been a labour of love for them all.
“We see different things each and every time,” Lin says.
Sometimes, they see Chinese white dolphins carrying their calves, while on other occasions they can be seen taking part in affectionate rituals with their mates.
“Things can also turn violent when they fight each other during courtship,” Lin says.
Those fishermen have all developed a very close bond with the marine mammals over the years and believe that some of the dolphins even recognise them.
“They will approach our boat as if they are looking for our protection when they are the underdog in a fight,” Lin says.
“Our hearts broke when we once saw some of them bleed during such a fighting.”
The four fishermen receive approximately 2,000 yuan ($297) a month for doing the dolphin protection work, and their family businesses have all benefited from the improving marine ecology.
Chinese white dolphins have also somehow pulled fishermen closer to their children.
“My son works away from home and he often calls me and asks about the dolphins,” says Su Liuge, another fisherman on Pan’s team.
Su’s son often brings friends and colleagues back home to see the white dolphins of Sanniang Bay.
“If the dolphins leave, my son might not want to come back either,” Su says half-jokingly.
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