Pink Dolphins Populate Hong Kong's Harbor

Some might think the closest you can get to eco-tourism in Hong Kong is watching a shark's fin floating in a bowl of soup.

But travelers who are tired of crowded concrete sidewalks, gleaming skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls don't need to go far to find a natural — seemingly mythical — wonder: dolphins that are 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'd read about the mammals in guidebooks, but I was always skeptical about whether they were really pink. I thought it had to be 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 dolphin-watching tours 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 anyway, figuring it would be nice to spend the morning on the South China Sea regardless of whether we saw the dolphins. The tour operator said dolphins are seen on 97 percent of its trips, and you can go again for free if there are no sightings.

We joined about 35 other tourists who were picked up by a coach bus in the lobby of two hotels and driven to Lantau, the largest island in Hong Kong's territory.

Our tour guide was Janet Walker, a British woman with dark blonde hair in a pony tail, denim skirt, sandals and fluorescent pink ear rings 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 enthusiasm tinged with desperation.

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

She said scientists don't know why the dolphins living off Hong Kong's coasts are pink. They're 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 predators like sharks aren't found, Walker said. The pink color is believed to be caused by blushing, the flushing of blood to the skin to regulate body temperature.

She said there are probably 150 dolphins in Hong Kong's waters and another 200 or so off the coasts of the nearby Chinese cities of Zhuhai and Macau. But the population is struggling because of the increase in sewage, industrial pollution and the loss of habitat by massive land reclamation projects.

"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," she said.

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 one has a scar behind his blow hole.

Dead dolphins are routinely found 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 at about 9:40 am and began our voyage. It was a comfortable new boat with a clean bathroom and plenty of cookies and soft drinks for the kids. The water wasn't choppy so seasickness wasn't a worry.

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."

About 15 of us sunbathed on the roof of the cabin as we looked for the dolphins. 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 in the murky water.

Walker started saying, "Yes, yes, yes," and you could almost see the tension leaving her body as the prospect of returning to port with a boatload of grumpy dolphin watchers vanished.

About 45 minutes later, another dolphin surfaced — but not long enough for my daughters — ages 3 and 7 — to see. Another one popped up 15 minutes later but was gone in a flash. Again, my girls missed them.

The kids finished the three-hour tour happy because they got to buy necklaces onboard with pink dolphin charms.

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