Thursday, April 02, 2009

Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins in Sarawak

The wet season is now pretty much over and the dolphin watching season has begun. Whilst the most commonly sighted species found near Kuching is the Irrawaddy dolphin there seem to be more and more sightings of finless porpoises. I guess this has something to do with the fact there are more boats going out dolphin watching and more people are aware that dolphins are found near Kuching.

Another species that is occasionally spotted in the waters near Kuching is the Indo-pacific humpback dolphin. I haven’t had much luck with this species over the years and have only spotted them a couple of times near Santubong but they were way off in the distance. Others have had better luck. James, who spends most of his time exploring caves in Bau and Serian and running his Kuching Caving tour outfit, took the above photo last year. And James’ friend George has posted some excellent photos of Indo-pacific humpback dolphins taken at both Bako and Santubong on his website.

Sarawak Dolphin Project Website

The Sarawak Dolphin Project now has a website at

The research project was launched in May 2008 and has three main survey areas - Kuching, Miri and Similajau. Up to November 2008, 21 days of boat surveys and 1,945 kms had been covered with 56 dolphin sightings. If you want to know what has been done and what is planned, download the half yearly report from the website. It provides some useful information about the project activities, including sightings and survey areas

6,000 Irrawaddy Dolphins Discovered in Bangladesh

A couple of years ago I blogged about the low numbers of Irrawaddy dolphins found at locations around the region, 77 in the Malampaya Sound, 70 in the Mahakam River, less than 50 in Songkla Lake, etc. Depressing reading. Well, now for some good news. Researchers at WCS have ‘found’ 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins living in the Sundarbans in Bangladesh. Previously it was believed that the population was around 450. The new population estimate is based on the results of recent surveys and research in the mangrove regions of the Sundarbans and nearby waters in the Bay of Bengal.

UK Guardian reports on it here. Instead of the usual doom and gloom environmental news it’s nice to read some happy news and some encouraging quotes and positive vibes from the conservationists involved. Mind you I had to laugh at one quote from the director of science for the WDCS - “to find 6,000 isn’t huge – but it’s significant”. Come on, finding 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins is a huge deal.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Irrawaddy III and Finless Porpoises off Santubong

Last year CPH Travel purchased a new boat, the Irrawaddy III. It is a spacious vessel equipped with twin 250 hp, 4 stroke engines. This makes it ideal for trips offshore and great for wildlife watching trips as the engines are a lot quieter than the 2 stroke engines that other local tour operators use. CPH use the boat for dive groups, deep sea fishing trips and wildlife tours. I’ve been meaning to go out on this fantastic boat for a while.

On Wednesday I had the opportunity to take a trip on Irrawaddy III. The purpose of the trip was to look for dolphins in the Bako-Buntal Bay and a few offshore areas where the fishermen from Buntal often see dolphins. Jamadi, CPH’s boatman and keen eyed dolphin spotter, and Oscar from CPH joined our group.

We left the Santubong Jetty at 9 am and in no time at all arrived at the Bako-Buntal bay. Conditions were perfect for dolphin spotting with a calm sea, good visibility and a perfect blue sky above. After cruising around the Bako-Buntal Bay we headed out to the deeper waters offshore from Pulau Lakei and then backtracked to the fishing grounds and shipwrecks north of Tanjung Sipang. Despite the perfect conditions we did not see any dolphins. We were hoping to spot some bottlenose dolphins but it wasn’t to be. So we headed towards Satang Island and then on to Pulau Tukong Ara or bird rock to view the terns and hopefully spot some pacific reef egrets.

After a short while at bird rock we then headed towards the Santubong estuary and I spotted what looked like two dolphins splashing around on the surface. At first I thought they were Irrawaddy dolphins but they were tiny so I was a tad unsure. I was beginning to think that maybe I’d seen a turtle or a huge fish. Then they surfaced again and Oscar shouted “Finless Porpoises”. And sure enough to the side of the boat were a group of finless porpoises. The group were spread out and I estimate that they were a minimum of four individuals. They may well have been a whole lot more. Finless porpoises are very difficult to spot, they surface for a few seconds and the lack of dorsal fin makes it very difficult to track the group. After a 15-20 minutes we lost track of the group.

Spotting the finless porpoises was a fantastic experience. Every time I head out to the waters off Santubong I am amazed by what is there. The area is such a beautiful place. I love being there but I also get the feeling that I am witnessing something that is about to disappear. More on that another day.

The Sarawak Dolphin Project

At long last Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins are to be the subject of a conservation based research project. I’ve constantly banged on about the need to actually go out and conduct some proper research and finally it is happening, great news. On 15th May 2008 the Sarawak Dolphin Project was launched in Kuching. I was aware that this project was on the cards. It has certainly taken a long time to put everything together so congratulations to everyone involved.

The project is a collaborative effort between Sarawak Shell, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) and the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC). UNIMAS has appointed Dr Gianna Minton as the project leader. Gianna spent 8 years in Oman studying whales and dolphins. Her PhD focused on the ecology and conservation of humpback whales in the Arabian Sea.

Sarawak Shell is providing a grant of RM 160,000 to facilitate the research. This is not the first time Shell have supported conservation work focusing on Irrawaddy dolphins. Shell Exploration Philippines funded WWF’s Malampaya Sound Ecological Studies Project in Palawan. This conservation project focused on the declining population of Irrawaddy dolphins in the confined waters of the Malampaya Sound.

SFC is the state’s principle wildlife protection agency and their staff will also be involved in the boat surveys and other aspects of the project.

The Sarawak Dolphin Project aims to collect baseline data on the seasonal distribution, habitat use and population of dolphins in Sarawak. The geographic focus of the project is Kuching and Miri. The research is not limited to Irrawaddy dolphins although survey efforts in Kuching will focus on near shore waters where the Irrawaddy is commonly sighted. Other species found in these waters are finless porpoises and Indo-pacific humpback dolphins. In Kuching research will focus on Salak/Santubong and neighbouring waters.

The launch of the project received good coverage in the local press. Unfortunately, the Borneo Post, Sarawak’s main English language newspaper decided to run a somewhat negative piece focusing on tourism as a threat to dolphins. The front page story with headline ‘Dolphin-watch tour packages cause for concern’ really missed the point of the whole story. Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins face a number of threats but tourism is not exactly the major one. Incidental catch and habitat degradation are the main threats. Hopefully the Borneo Post will carry some follow-up stories that provide more balanced coverage of the project when the various surveys commence next month.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sarawak’s Draft Marine Mammal Watching Guidelines

Sarawak now has a draft set of guidelines for marine mammal watching. As I’ve argued before such guidelines are long overdue. The need to develop dolphin watching guidelines for Sarawak was first brought to the attention of the Ministry of Tourism and Sarawak Forest Department in 2002 when the Sarawak Tourist Association raised the matter. The idea then was to develop guidelines through a consultative process involving the tourism industry via workshops and practical training for boatmen. At that time the Forest Department was not even aware that tour operators and boat owners were conducting dolphin watching tours even though these tours had been running for years. Nothing came of the proposal. Anyway, fast forward 5 years and it seems that the relevant wildlife agency is now taking an interest in Sarawak’s nascent dolphin watching industry which should be a good thing.

Last month members of the tourism industry and government sector were invited to a presentation by the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), the agency currently responsible for wildlife management in the state. SFC gave a presentation on the wider actitives of SFC and then the marine mammal watching guidelines. This was the first time the tourism industry were aware of the guidelines as tourism operators were not consulted in the process of developing the draft guidelines. A number of operators and boat owners that offer dolphin watching tours were not at the meeting and many of those at the meeting do not even offer dolphin watching tours in Sarawak. This week I did a quick check amongst existing operators and many are not aware that there is now a draft set of dolphin watching guidelines.

So how useful are the guidelines and how relevant are they to Sarawak? Well first off the guidelines have not been specifically tailored to suit Sarawak’s dolphin watching industry which is currently focused on the Irrawaddy dolphin. In fact Sarawak’s guidelines are copied almost word-for-word from the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching. Yes, someone at SFC has done a ‘cut and paste’ job. On the printed copy of the Sarawak guidelines, there is no acknowledgement of the fact the guidelines were lifted from the Australian regulations.

Using the Australian guidelines as a model for Sarawak is not a bad thing. However, I think greater effort should have been made to adapt the Australian guidelines to the local Sarawak setting. In addition the local tourism industry should have been consulted more and given the chance to provide some meaningful input. According to people that were at last month’s presentation, some wildlife officials were not very well briefed on the local dolphin watching industry.

Currently all dolphin watching tours in Sarawak take place in rivers and estuaries not in the open ocean. However, the guidelines allocate just two sentences to confined waterways.

In confined or crowded waterways such as bays, estuaries, channels and rivers it may not be possible for vessels to maintain approach distances or appropriate number of boat within the caution zone. In these instances take all necessary caution to avoid whales and dolphins.

So just 44 words of the 17 page document are directly relevant to Sarawak’s existing dolphin watching industry. In this respect, the guidelines essentially boil down to last sentence “in these instances take all necessary caution to avoid whales and dolphins”. Which basically amounts to “its up to you lah”!

Many aspects of the guidelines are more relevant to Australia than Sarawak. This is hardly surprisingly since the guidelines were copied from Australia. For example there is a section on land based marine mammal watching that states “cliffs and headlands can provide excellent advantage points for viewing many different whale and dolphins” Does anyone out there know of any cliffs or headlands on Sarawak’s low lying coastline? Last time I looked most of Sarawak’s coast was as flat as pancake. There may be the odd cliff here and there but most of these overlook shallow waters. You’d have to camp out on a cliff for a few years before you catch sight of a whale or dolphin.

There is also a whole bunch of stuff in the guidelines on feeding and dolphin swimming programmes, again lifted directly form the Australian guidelines. These sections state that feeding and dolphin swim programmes are not allowed unless authorised by SFC. I think it would have been better to state that feeding and swim programmes are banned, period. Australia has a pretty good licensing and monitoring system for feeding and swim programmes. In contrast there is limited enforcement and monitoring of conservation and wildlife regulations in Sarawak. In view of the limited resources allocated to monitoring and enforcement I think no authorisation should be given for feeding and swim programmes.

With regards to dolphin swim programmes, there is also a safety concern in Sarawak. In many places swimming with dolphin programmes are not viable in Sarawak. The accessible dolphin populations are found in rivers and estuaries where crocodiles are also commonly found. Not sure too many tourists would fancy swimming with dolphins with a bunch of crocs lurking nearby?

All in all the draft guidelines are a bit disappointing. Not much work has gone into them, they have just been copied from elsewhere. In their current form the guidelines are not going to have much impact. Hopefully there will be more discussion, debate and consultation so that the existing draft can be adapted to local conditions.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Santubong National Park is finally gazetted

Well it looks like it is official. Santubong has been gazetted as a national park according to a report in the local press. Tucked away in an article headlined “Illegal logging still under control: Tengah” in today’s Borneo Post is a small paragraph quoting Second Planning & Resource Minister Dato Seri Awang Tengah Ali Hassan as saying that Santubong National Park covering an area of 2,000 hectares was “gazetted recently by the government”.

I recently heard through the Sarawak ‘coffee shop rumour mill’ that Santubong had finally been gazetted as a park but I hadn’t seen any official announcement. With the Minister’s statement in the local press it looks like its official.

The Mount Santubong area was first proposed as a national park in 1984 so the wheels of government took a bit of time to spin in to action with this one. But the fact that such a special natural area is now protected is great news for Sarawak.

I spend a lot of time in the Santubong area as do many nature lovers who live in Kuching. The area has heaps to offer – some stunning rainforest scenery, clear jungle streams, rich wildlife and some beautiful bays and beaches. Oh yeah, the Irrawaddy dolphins hang out nearby which is an added bonus.

There are now three protected areas in the wider Santubong area – the Kuching Wetlands National Park, the Talang Satang marine park and the new Santubong National Park.

With such a rich mosaic of habitats in the wider Santubong area, there is certainly room for a couple more protected areas. It would be great if the mangroves at Buntal were protected. And the creation of a “Damai Dolphin Sanctuary” covering the near shore waters off Santubong and Salak would certainly get my vote.