Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tips on taking photos and video of Irrawaddy dolphins

Irrawaddy dolphins are not the easiest of dolphins to photograph or film. They are fairly inactive and don’t ‘perform’ for the camera like bottlenose or other oceanic dolphins. So here are a few tips that hopefully will increase your chances of getting a good photo of an Irrawaddy.

1. Make sure you go on a dolphin watching tour with an experienced boatman or tour operator. Currently there are only two operators that are experienced at locating and approaching dolphins - CPH Travel and boat owner Ehrwan from Kampung Buntal.

2. You’ll need at least a 300 mm lens to get a good full frame shot. Saying that if you have a good interaction you may be able to get some good shots with a point and push camera. If you are shooting video, priority number one is to turn off the digital zoom. When you spot a group of Irrawaddys keep the tape running rather than turning the camera on and off. If the dolphins disappear, pick a spot and keep the tape running for while. You might get lucky and capture the dolphins surfacing.

3. Help each other to spot the dolphins. If you see a dolphin tell others on the boat where it is. Rather than saying “over there”, “dolphin”, “this side” or other phrases that don’t indicate the direction, use a clock system as a simple reference tool. 12 O’clock is the front of the boat (the bow for the nautically minded), 6 O’clock is the back (stern) of the boat and so on. If you see a dolphin call out its position (1 O’clock , 10 O’clock, etc) so other people on the boat know where it is.
4. Bear in mind that when Irrawaddy dolphins surface they show very little of their body. A normal surface consists of a loud blow and 1-3 quick ‘rolls’, with the dolphin’s head pretty much tucked under water. So you have to be quick. If the dolphins hang around for a while you’ll quickly get the hang of things. If you are able to get a good photo, chances are it will be of this classic roll-like surfacing behaviour.

5. Your chances of taking a good photo are vastly improved if you chance upon a larger group. Yeah I know that’s not exactly rocket science but realistically if you see a small group of 2-4 Irrawaddy dolphins you are better off enjoying the moment rather than getting stressed out trying to take a good photo.

6. If the group you are watching are moving in one direction it is common to miss the first ‘surface’. You hear the ‘blow’, turn round and by the time you click your camera the dolphin is gone. Don’t worry about this and don’t start cursing your bad fortune, you need to keep focused as this may be your chance. Keep the camera directed in roughly the same spot as where the first dolphin surfaced as often a second dolphin or group of dolphins will surface in the same general area, moving in the same direction as the first dolphin.

7. Once you’ve spotted a group try to keep a track of the time between surfaces. Irrawaddy dolphins stay under water for 1-8 minutes, longer if they are scared. So time the surfaces. If the dolphins are surfacing at regular periods (say every 2-3 minutes) then get ready for them.

8. Association with fishing boats. It is quite common to see Irrawaddy dolphins circling small fishing boats. After the fishermen haul in their nets they sort out the fish that they can not sell and throw this ‘trash’ fish back into the sea. This is a good opportunity to get a photo as the situation is more predictable. You can see when the fisherman is about to throw the fish back into the sea and have a good idea where the dolphin will surface.

9. If you are lucky you may observe a dolphin spy hopping (the dolphin pokes its head out of the water and has a good look around). This does not last for long and is usually over in a few seconds, so you have to be quick if you want to get a picture. Occasionally you may see a group gather on the surface and splash around bit, sometimes slapping their fins at each other. This social interaction provides a good opportunity to get a photo as the dolphins are on the surface for longer than usual.

10. So any chances of getting lucky and photographing something special? Well the ultimate would be to capture an Irrawaddy dolphin breaching, jumping clear out of the water. But to photograph this you have to see it and the chances are slim. I’ve only seen an Irrawaddy dolphin jump out of the water on three occasions. Two of these were low horizontal leaps where part of the dolphin was still in the water. But the third was a full breach. I didn’t manage to capture this on film as I was too late and ended up with a photo of a big splash but no dolphin. But a good friend of mine Stuart Green got the shot and captured the early part of the jump. And he knew it at the time; even during the excitement of the moment, he knew he had the shot.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Propeller Strike

This photo was taken at the Santubong estuary. It shows a chunk cut out of the dolphin’s dorsal fin. There’s a high volume of boat traffic in the rivers and estuaries around Kuching with fishing fleets and pleasure craft constantly coming and going. Not surprisingly dolphins often get hit by boat propellers. It is quite common to spot Irrawaddy dolphins with chunks cut out of their dorsal fins. I’ve seen dolphins with half a dorsal fin, no dorsal fin at all, and circular cuts on the upper body that look like they have been carved out by a boat propeller.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Fact File: Sarawak's Irrawaddy dolphins, where are they found

Whilst populations of Irrawaddy dolphins are declining in a number of countries, the dolphin is considered locally common in some places. There is evidence that Sarawak is one such place. The Irrawaddy is the most commonly sighted dolphin in Sarawak waters. Furthermore, its distribution is not limited to a single river system.

Known locally as “pesut” or “empesut”, the Irrawaddy dolphin is found along the length of Sarawak’s coast from Tanjung Datu to Miri, and is often sighted in all of Sarawak’s major river estuaries including Sematan, Santubong, Bako, Muara Tebas, Kabong, Batang Rajang and Batang Igan. It is also enters major river systems including the Sadong, Kabong, Saribas, Rajang, Igan, Bintulu, Miri and Limbang Rivers.

During the dry season from March-November Irrawaddy dolphins are frequently sighted in two areas near Kuching - the Bako-Buntal Bay and the Santubong estuary. Dolphins have been spotted in these areas during the wet season but owing to rising swells and rain, sightings are less frequent.

At Santubong, Irrawaddys are often seen in the mouth of the Santubong River, at the nearby Kuala Sibu Laut and in the Salak River. On rare occasions they are sighted off Damai Beach and are sometimes sighted near the Damai Golf Course. Whilst it is common to spot one or two groups of dolphins in the Santubong area, on occasions four or five groups, together comprising up to 30 dolphins, have been sighted close together in the Santubong estuary.

In Santubong, Salak and Sibu Laut Irrawaddy dolphins are often seen following trawlers and swimming near small fishing craft. Local fishermen can also be seen throwing fish to dolphins after they haul in their nets. After the fishermen haul in their nets they sort out the fish that they can not sell in the market and throw this ‘trash’ fish back into the sea. The Irrawaddy dolphins have learnt that a free meal can be had and wait around the boats.

Fact File: Irrawaddy Dolphin, Orcaella brevirostris

The Irrawaddy dolphin is found in tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific region from eastern India to northern Australia. It generally inhabits shallow, inshore coastal waters and is often associated with river estuaries and mangrove forests. Irrawaddy dolphins are also found upstream in some major river systems in Southeast Asia, including the Mahakam River in Indonesia, the Mekong River of Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam and the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, from which the species got its name.

A shy and elusive animal, the Irrawaddy dolphin has an unusual looking appearance, quite distinct from other oceanic dolphins. It has a blunt, rounded head, a flexible neck and a small triangular dorsal fin with a blunt tip. Their colour varies from dark grey to a light grey. The Irrawaddy is a relatively small dolphin with adults ranging between 2.1-2.6 metres in length and weighing between 90 and 150 kilograms. It feeds on fish, crustaceans and squid and generally remains within 2km of the coast.

The Irrawaddy is a slow moving dolphin. They normally only show the rear half of their bodies and hide their heads in the water as they surface for air. In general, each surface consists of a short blow and two or three slow rolls before diving. Occasionally, they show their tails before a dive. Irrawaddys usually swim around in groups of 2-6 individuals, however larger groups of up to 15 dolphins have been reported.

Irrawaddy dolphins face a number of threats to their existence. Their preferred habitat of inshore waters is subject to intensive human activity and development pressures. They are therefore highly vulnerable to habitat destruction, pollution, boat collisions and entanglement in fishing nets.

I'm not bluffing, there are dolphins in Sarawak

Welcome to Dolphins of Sarawak. This blog focuses on the Irrawaddy dolphins of Sarawak, Malaysia. More specifically on the resident dolphin populations in the rivers and estuaries located close to Kuching, in particular those found at Salak, Santubong and Buntal.

Not much is known about Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins. Yes, we know they are out there but aside from a few preliminary dolphin surveys very little research has been conducted in Sarawak. Currently there is no long-term research programme focusing on Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins.

Public awareness of these fascinating marine mammals is low in Sarawak. For example, most residents of Kuching don’t know that Irrawaddy dolphins are found in a number of areas that are less than an hour’s travelling time from the city centre. And very few people are aware of the fact that the Santubong area is one of the best places in Southeast Asia to watch Irrawaddy dolphins (and a whole bunch of other wildlife too).

I’ve been fascinated with Irrawaddy dolphins every since I first spotted a group of dolphins in the Salak river estuary way back 2000. Since then I’ve developed a bit of an addiction to dolphin watching. During the dolphin watching season which runs from March to November I try to get out onto the water as much as possible.

Dolphins of Sarawak contains travel articles, fact files and random bits of information that I have collected whilst out watching dolphins or talking to the villagers that fish in the waters where Irrawaddy dolphins are commonly found. I am not a marine mammal expert so don’t expect too much ‘science’. I just want to spread the word about Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins and what a unique natural resource they are for the State.

The initial posts will mostly be based on past trips and historic information. As the dolphin watching season starts I’ll add further trip reports with information on recent dolphin sightings. As a rough guide, content will be organised as follows:

Fact Files - information on Irrawaddy dolphins and where they are found in Sarawak. A bit dry but gives you the basic run down. Articles & News - travel articles, news and a few random thoughts, a more personal take on things. Sightings & Trip Reports - notes on dolphin watching trips and reported sightings. Dolphin Watching Tours - where are the best places to go and who can help organise a dolphin watching trip. Threats – Information on threats faced by Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins.