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Dolphins Have Tourists Tickled Pink

Hong Kong, a teeming city of skyscrapers, is the unlikely home of a species of marine mammals of an unusual bubblegum color.

January 29, 2006|William Foreman | Associated Press Writer

HONG KONG — In a city of crowded concrete sidewalks, gleaming skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls, some might think the closest you can get to ecotourism in Hong Kong is a shark's fin floating in a bowl of soup.

But travelers don't need to go far to find a natural -- seemingly mythical -- wonder: dolphins as pink as bubble gum.

Hong Kong is one of the best places in the world to see the dolphins, known as the Indo-Pacific humpback species.

I had read about the mammals in guidebooks, but I was skeptical that they were really pink. I thought it was an exaggeration; maybe they were pale and a tad reddish. How could a dolphin be completely pink? It just didn't seem natural.

The guidebooks also said that going on a dolphin-watching tour almost guaranteed you would see the creatures.

Again, I was skeptical. I usually have the worst luck on such outings. Animals seem to love to hide from me -- especially when I bring along my two noisy daughters.

Still, I decided to sign up my family for a tour with Hong Kong Dolphinwatch, figuring it would be nice to spend the morning on the South China Sea whether or not we saw the dolphins. The tour operator said dolphins were spotted on 97% of the trips, and travelers could go again for free if there were no sightings.

We joined about 35 other tourists and were driven to Lantau, the largest island in Hong Kong's territory.

Our guide was Janet Walker, a British woman with dark blond hair in a pony tail, denim skirt, sandals and fluorescent pink earrings shaped like dolphins. She told us all about the dolphins in a 20-minute spiel that mixed a high school science teacher's authority with a Greenpeace activist's desperation tinged enthusiasm.

Walker -- who taught in Japan for six years -- frequently shifted from English to Japanese, because about half the group was from Japan.

She said scientists didn't know why the dolphins living off Hong Kong's coasts were pink. The same species is usually white, gray or yellow in other places, such as South Africa and northern Australia.

One theory is that the dolphins lost their need for camouflage because they live in brackish water where rivers meet the sea -- areas where such predators as sharks aren't found, Walker said. The pink color is believed to be caused by blushing, the rush of blood to the skin that regulates body temperature.

She said there were probably 150 dolphins in Hong Kong's waters and another 200 or so off the coasts of the nearby Chinese cities of Zhuhai and Macao. But the population is struggling because of an increase in sewage, industrial pollution and massive land-reclamation projects that are encroaching on their habitat.

"Dolphins and boats are getting shoved closer and closer together," she said. "I think everyone agrees that the number of dolphins isn't increasing, which it should be for a population that's not using birth control."

No ecotour would be complete without depressing pictures of animals harmed by humans. Walker displayed photos of a fishing net stuck to a dolphin. Another photo has a dolphin with a scar behind his blow hole.

Dead dolphins are found routinely on Hong Kong's beaches and they usually tend to be young, Walker said. Some believe the baby dolphins -- especially the first ones to be born -- get a heavy dose of toxins from their mothers' milk, she said.

We boarded the cruise boat about 9:40 a.m. and began our voyage.

An hour passed and there was no sign of any dolphins. A typhoon was swirling hundreds of miles away in the Pacific and the weather was becoming blustery.

As she scanned the water, Walker said, "They do tend to seek shelter on windy days but it's hard to find the bit of shelter where they are."

The cruiser usually sailed parallel to boats dragging fishing nets because the slow-swimming dolphins like to follow the vessels.

As the minutes went by, Walker got increasingly tense. She said the boat would usually stay out until a dolphin was spotted but one of the tourists had to catch a plane that afternoon.

Suddenly, the captain started slapping the side of the boat and pointed to the right of the cruiser. I swung around just in time to see a bright pink dolphin pop out of the water for a split second before disappearing into the murky water.

Walker brightened up, as the prospect of returning to port with a boatload of grumpy dolphin-watchers vanished.

About 45 minutes later, another dolphin surfaced. Then, soon after, another one.

My girls, below deck, missed them, but finished the three-hour tour happy because they got to buy necklaces with pink dolphin charms.

For me, the dolphin spotting was too momentary to be completely satisfying. But it was thrilling to see a rare creature that seems like it should be in fairy tales with unicorns rather than in the waters around one of the world's busiest cities.

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