Category Archives: Whales & Dolphins

Cetaceans from Hong Kong waters: whales, dolphins and porpoises sighted in Hong Kong. Cetacean conservation. Guide to Hong Kong cetaceans.

Dead Finless Porpoise Off Shek O

A locally-rare finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) was found dead in the waters off Shek O, last week (19th November 2015). 

The adult female finless porpoise was discovered on Wednesday at Tai Long Pai, bringing the total number of cetacean strandings this year up to 35. It measured 162 centimetres in length and was already severely decomposed. Dissection revealed a fishing rod in its stomach, but the cause of death is still unknown.

Marine Police received information that the corpse of a finless porpoise had been spotted floating near Shek O. The porpoise was then collected and brought to Marine Police Regional Headquarters at Sai Wan Ho, where Ocean Park Conservation Foundation’s Cetacean Stranding Response Team took on the cadaver for autopsy.

Elsewhere in China the Global Times reports another finless porpoise washed up dead in Poyang Lake in Jiangxi Province. Poyang Lake is a freshwater lake which along with the Dongting Lake is host to an estimated 500 finless porpoises. This stranding brings the total for Poyang Lake for 2015 to 5.

Chinese White Dolphin spotted in Pearl River near Guangzhou

As reported by several news outlets this week, a Chinese White Dolphin (Sousa chinensis) – aluas Indopacific Humpback Dolphin or ‘pink dolphin’ – was spotted near Guangzhou in the Pearl River on Wednesday the 21st of October. This drew some crowds as the dolphin stayed for about an hour. Conservation staff later used sonar equipment to try to herd it back out towards the sea -apparently with some success.

  
This story is however quite hyped-up, because these dolphins live near estuaries and previous studies have shown they move further into the estuary in the dry winter months when less freshwater is flushed into the sea by the Pearl River. In summer when the heavy rains come and the river swells the dolphins range extends further out. This is likely because they are following fish stocks that themselves track a line of salinity which mobmves in and out of the estuary with the seasons. Some fish like the flathead mullet (Mugil cephalus) commonly sold in fish markets also move in and out of fresh and seawater depending on their stage in life.

Speaking of which, I saw another prize catch of a mullet on the central waterfront yesterday. It’s a bigger fish than I have seen in any market at about 40 cm and probably 2+ kg – it drew a small crowd and plenty of mobile phone cameras. congratulations to the lucky angler!

  

The Tai Po Whale of 1914 and the Taipo Whale of 2014

I found another ‘gem’ while looking through old HK newspapers:

A Whale Now!

A reader informs us that a whale 23 feet [7m] in length was seen in Tolo Harbour, near Taipo, on Sunday [11th of May 1914], and that the police, from a launch, fired three rounds at the mighty creature, which however disappeared.”

Taken from the Hong Kong Telegraph 13th of May 1914
Taken from the Hong Kong Telegraph 13th of May 1914
How strange to think that back then the first reaction on seeing a big whale, was to pull out a gun and shoot it!

It struck me as quite interesting, that Tolo Harbor near Taipo was also the site the stranding of a 42-foot (13m) Omura’s whale in March 2014 – almost exactly 100 years later!

Tolo Harbor is almost completely enclosed by land so any whale erring into it is bound to get confused, I think.

Whale and Dolphin Strandings and Oil and Gas Exploration in the South China Sea

In May of this year CNOOC reported a mid-sized oil field discovery, the Liuhua 20-2 field, in the Eastern South China Sea. Liuhua 20-2 is located in the Pearl River Mouth basin of the South China Sea, at an average water depth of about 390 m. The discovery well (LH20-2-1) was drilled to a depth of about 2,970 m.

This is only the latest South China Sea oil and gas field to be opened. In the last decade a large number of fields have been discovered, explored and commercially exploited. Hong Kong in fact receives some of its gas via a direct pipeline from a gas field southeast of Hainan Island.

Oil and gas prospecting, however, relies on seismic surveys. This involves sending powerful sound or shock waves through the water to the seabed to measure and analyse the echo received back. For the echo to give valuable data on lower rock layers they must be powerful enough to penetrate through thick sediment and into the rocks below. There are a few ways that can be done some including TNT or electricity to create imploding plasma bubbles. But the result is always a loud sound or explosion.

Oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea (via Energy-pedia, May 2014)

In the last few years Hong Kong has seen a number of more unusual whale strandings including deep-water species like sperm whales, Pygmy sperm whales and short-finned pilot whales, as well as other whales normally rarely if ever seen in Hong Kong such as Omura’s whales. Toothed whales rely heavily on echolocation (seeing by sound) for navigation, so the idea arises whether increased seismic survey activity in the South China Sea is part of the cause for these strandings.

Unfortunately, I am not aware of any scientific investigations into the effects of seismic surveys on whales and dolphins in the South China Sea. Research in this area is very difficult because it is hard to track whales and dolphins in the first place, and because their navigation sense is poorly understood. There are also multiple possible reasons for strandings, including disease and injuries so making a causal link between seismic surveys and whale strandings is very difficult even in the best of circumstances. However, intuitively, it seems right to restrict the use of loud explosions in the habitat of rare marine animals with very sensitive hearing organs that are also essential for their navigation. Particularly as sound conducts much better in water than in air.

When I took part in a research cruise to the Weddell Sea in Antarctica (back in 2005) there was actually a restriction on even the scientific use of small seismic surveys for marine geological baseline research. Special permits had to be applied for from the relevant government ddepartments of participating nations – in the end the only country that granted a permit was Russia.

There are also (as far as I am aware) reasonable restrictions on using seismic surveys in the North Atlantic by Europe, the U.S. and Canada, that require observers to check (as far as possible) that no whales are in the area before the survey starts.

I am not aware of any such restrictions in the South China Sea, although my knowledge of PRC laws and regulations is poor and perhaps such rules exist after all (feel free to point out any errors in the comments below).

Newborn dolphin dies at Ocean Park; 2 more found dead on Hong Kong beaches

 A newborn dolphin, a small marine cousin of the dolphin, died at Ocean Park last night, where it had been born just 73 hours earlier. Its death came on the same day that two other finless porpoises were revealed to have been found dead on the city’s beaches.

The dead calf’s mother was said to have had a difficult labour, and her baby, a female, immediately displayed an abnormal swimming pattern. The theme park said she also found it difficult to stay alongside her mother when she was not suckling.

Necropsy results show the calf’s stomach was empty, and about 25 per cent of her lungs were not fully expanded. The theme park said it was not uncommon for dolphins to die in infancy, citing a previous study of dolphins in Western Australia, which showed 44 per cent of calves do not survive to three years of age.

Meanwhile, Mui Wo resident Leslie Parker said her son and his friend found the body of what was initially thought to be a seal or sea lion on the rocks near Lower Cheung Sha beach on Wednesday.

Officers from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and Ocean Park’s Cetacean Stranding Response Team visited the site yesterday evening to conduct an autopsy. They removed the carcass for further examination.

A dolphin, which lacks a dorsal fin, may appear similar to a sea lion, said Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, chairman of the Dolphin Conservation Society. However, the porpoise has a smoother skin, with no hair, and it has a tail, while the sea lion has flippers. The species is considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“The six months between December and May have always been the time of the year when most strandings of dolphins are reported,” said Hung, adding that gillnet fishing was usually the cause of dolphin deaths in Hong Kong waters.

Yesterday morning, police received another report of a dead finless porpoise – this time a 158cm-long adult, which was discovered at a beach off Tai Wan Tau Road, Tseung Kwan O.

The Ocean Park response team were again sent to the scene and took a sample to find out the cause of death. A spokeswoman described it as “severely decomposed”, with signs of having been strangled by a fishing net. There were also bruises on its tail.

There were 32 reports of finless porpoise strandings last year.


Reported by the SCMP ON 2nd April, 2015

Dolphin Hope Died in an Aquarium – Scared and Alone – Was That Humane?

‘Hope’, the Chinese White Dolphin injured by a boat propeller in January, was euthanised on February 10th after its bodily functions started to shut down overnight. Hope was first sighted by university students on January 16 with large wounds on its back that were so deep they exposed the marine mammal’s vertebrae. The spines above its fluke was completely severed.

Bowing to intense public pressure and activist lobbying, ‘rescuers’ located and caught it 18 days later at Lantau’s Shek Pik area. He was then handed over by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department to Ocean Park’s rehabilitation facilities, where he was given fish, tubing fluids and antibiotics and where a vet cleaned the wounds.

Initially there were some signs of slight recovery as carers attempted to help him regain the loss of more than 20 percent of his body weight (up to 50 kg), after at least three weeks of limited feeding, by hand feeding him fish .

But his condition only deteriorated overnight (10-11th of February) and it failed to respond to treatment. He began regurgitating his food and his breathing became weak. His body temperature started to drop and he lost buoyancy.

A necropsy and a virtopsy will be performed to investigate the extent of Hope’s wounds, internal organ damage and infection to allow park staff to as much as possible for the care of any future injured dolphins. 

 As mentioned in my previous post on Hope’s capture, Ocean Park and almost every other captive dolphin facility have a pretty poor record at keeping even healthy dolphins alive, let alone rehabilitating them (successes are the exception that prove the rule).
But activists and the general public were not satisfied with this or the prospect of the dolphin simply dying in the sea, so the animal was ‘rescued’ and transferred to a sterile, featureless and alien environment (tank) in a operation that would have increased stress levels, where it was then completely alone without even the possibility of acoustic contact with other members of its own species. The chances, as Ocean Park’s vet in charge even said, were always slim for such severe injuries. So faced with the highly likely death of the dolphin – it was decided it should die all alone – scared and stressed – in addition to its painful and fatal injuries.

Many people harbor feelings of passive misanthropy – a latent hatred of humanity, because we all know humans are screwing up the environment. The result is a desperate need to ‘fix’ the situation. Consequently, scientific opinion is frequently dismissed and even attacked, if it advises the public to not act. In the case of Hope the dolphin, HK’s leading expert on local dolphins  Dr Samuel Hung was publicly criticised and his reputation damaged because he advised leaving the dolphin alone. Scientifically that was the right call. But most people did not want to hear that. People like to humanize dolphins and that is good in some ways, in fact it helps their conservation to some extent. But the humanising of animals serves primarily human emotional needs to love and care for another living being. The side effects can be both positive and negative. 

The ‘rescue’ of Hope was dubbed a ‘humane act’, but if you think it through the vast majority of humans, if we could chose the setting of our own death, would want to die in familiar surroundings with family and friends present. The prospect of our final moments being born out in a clinical, chlorinated prison cell completely alone except for the watchful eyes of the group of aliens who removed us from our homes and put us in the cell. This sadly is how Hope met his end.

What is interesting, too, is that the same activists who insisted on putting this dolphin in a marine-themed amusement park facility, also adamantly campaign against this dolpinarium facilities at the same time.  This indicates to me that there is not a rational reason behind the rescue, but more of an emotional one.

So there we have the even sadder end of an already sad tale. Sometimes ‘rescuing animals’ can be the worst thing to do.

3rd Dead Dolphin of 2015 Found Near the Airport

A team from the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation (OPCF) yesterday (24/3/2015) examined the dead body of a Chinese white dolphin found in waters near the Hong Kong airport.

The carcass was first spotted floating off of the Brothers, a pair of islands to the northeast of the Hong Kong International Airport.

The team was unable to determine the cause of death since the body was severely decomposed, but samples were collected for further study.

“Unfortunately, we can only confirm the cause of death in less than 10 percent of cases, mainly because most of the carcasses are badly decomposed when discovered,” said Shadow Sin, the assistant manager of scientific projects for OPCF.

  

It’s the third cetacean stranding case reported so far this year. This month also so the death of the injured dolphin nick-named ‘Hope’.

Hong Kong’s Chinese white dolphins, widely known as pink dolphins, are threatened by habitat loss and marine traffic.

The range of pink dolphins in Hong Kong has shrunk substantially since the construction of the Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok.

If you spot a dead or distressed animal you should immediately call the Hong Kong government hotline at 1823. 

Images by Ocean Park Conservation Foundation