British expat Janet Walker has been working on saving Lantau’s pink dolphins since 1997.
I arrived in Hong Kong in 1996. I’d been teaching with my husband in Japan and then went backpacking. Like lots of people, we came to Hong Kong when we were low on funds and as Brits could walk in and start working. We thought we might stay a year of two before settling down back in the UK.
We moved to Ap Lei Chau 12 years ago, but have always lived in the Aberdeen and Pok Fu Lam areas. Our daughter, Sam, is now 14.
In the summer of ‘97 I was looking for some extra work and I saw a tiny advert in the South China Morning Post saying “Eco-tourism company needs Japanese/English speaker for tour guide plus.” I had no idea there was any eco-tourism in Hong Kong, but I’ve always been a tree-hugger so I posted my CV and was sent a postcard of a dolphin in return, saying they would be in touch. Dolphins! I was thrilled.
My “interview” with HK Dolphinwatch consisted of joining a dolphin trip to make sure I didn’t get seasick. And as luck would have it, a Japanese friend was one of the passengers. She spoke great English but I made her speak Japanese all day so I could show off. In those days, Japan was Hong Kong’s main source of tourists. The mainland Chinese market hadn’t really matured beyond the shopping and dining stage.
American Bill Leverett started Hong Kong Dolphinwatch in 1995 as a way of raising awareness about the dolphins. He knew of them through his work with Friends of the Earth and couldn’t believe nobody was doing anything for them. He saw that in some areas of the world whale and dolphin watching can be a huge part of the local tourist economy if done properly, and thought that if the same happened in Hong Kong maybe people would think the dolphins were worth saving. Unfortunately it didn’t really work out – there are businesses with a lot stronger influence than ours out there.
After 19 years I still get excited to see the dolphins and love seeing people’s reactions when they spot their first. The most common reaction is “Wow! They really are pink!”
I’ve met so many interesting people; activists, writers, an opera singer who sang to the dolphins, a Brownie pack who also sang Kumbaya – they got better results than the soprano – a new age practitioner who dangled crystals over them and an American expert on Chinese hermits writing a “water feature”. I’ve seen it all.
We get some splendid questions at our school talks – the kids often ask how you can tell the difference between a boy dolphin and a girl dolphin. I was explaining it to a four-year old recently and he looked horrified! It is so important for children to understand wildlife, no aquarium or zoo will do that.
On a typical tour, we bus everyone from TST to Lantau, and explain what to expect. We’re on the boat for three to four hours – wild animals don’t always run to a timeframe – and we include a morning tea. When we spot a pod, we slow down to see if we can approach them – we’re the uninvited guests in their home after all. Calves are black and only 80cm at birth, once they get older and lose their pigmentation my job gets a bit easier! We don’t know why they are pink, it is not diet related, they don’t eat shrimp or anything like that.
It is estimated there are just 60 pink dolphins left in North Lantau, although that figure doesn’t include their cousins throughout the region. That’s about half what it was ten years ago. The main threats are pollution, loss of habitat and associated construction work (the airport extension is a huge concern), over-fishing, net entanglement and boat traffic. Pollution can cause contamination in mothers’ milk, so the death rate of calves is particularly high. Personally I haven’t eaten any local seafood since joining Dolphinwatch.
There are some very powerful forces in Hong Kong so if someone wants to build a great big bridge through the delta, they’ll get their way. There are some good people out there, but I do feel we’ve been banging our heads against a brick wall for 20 years.
Autumn was always the best time for sightings, but these days things are less predictable. Our success rate is over 95%, so if none are spotted we’ll offer another trip for free. They are estuarine dolphins, so anywhere north or west of Lantau has potential.
On my days off I like to knit and read, or try to get to the pool in summer. I love the convenience of Hong Kong, it’s compact and safe and you can move from the city to the countryside, mountains and beaches in no time, with excellent public transport links.
I like to wander around the older parts of town, although it makes me sad to see how much development there is. Wan Chai has changed so much. I love places like Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po, but a lot of the history is disappearing.
I like taking visitors to the American Peking restaurant in Wan Chai. But personally I prefer to eat vegetarian and love Indian food.
We’ll keep going with Dolphinwatch as long as there are dolphins and people who want to see them. We are really pleased when people write to the papers and raise development and pollution issues. So many of the things that affect the dolphins are also harmful to us. Recycling, not eating local seafood and avoiding unethical dolphin trips on Lantau are all things we can do to help.