Monday, April 24, 2006

The Sarawak Dolphin, Lagenodelphis hosei

Yes, a dolphin has been named after Sarawak. The ‘Sarawak Dolphin’ or ‘Fraser’s Dolphin’ was scientifically described in 1956 by F.C. Fraser. His description was based on a skeleton found on a beach in Lutong in 1895. The skeleton was found by Charles Hose and the specimen now resides in the British Museum of Natural History.

The Fraser’s dolphin remained a mystery to scientists until the 1970’s when the species was ‘rediscovered’. It is found in deep waters of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. One of the best places in Southeast Asia to see Fraser’s dolphins is Bohol in the Philippines. This is where I went to see them. They are fantastic dolphins to watch as they are very social and hang out in groups of 100-500. I’ve been to Pamilacan Island in Bohol a few times to see these beautiful creatures. They are joy to watch.

There have been no further records of the Fraser’s dolphin in Sarawak. This does not mean that they are no longer found in Sarawak, its just that no scientists have been offshore to look for them. Recent marine mammal research in Sarawak has focused on near shore waters rather than the deep offshore waters that Fraser’s dolphins prefer.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Irresponsible Tourism in Action

As I’ve mentioned before, a number of ‘copy-cat’ operators have started to offer dolphin watching tours at Santubong and many of these are not very knowledgeable. I’d heard about a blue boat that regularly harasses the dolphins, chasing them around the bay.

On Saturday 22nd April after kayaking to Salak village, FH20 and I paddled back to the river estuary and encountered three groups of Irrawaddy dolphins. We stopped paddling and just sat in the kayak watching the dolphins surface nearby.

We then spotted a tourist boat some distance away watching another group of dolphins. Both of us were shocked at what we saw. It was the infamous blue boat, the very same boat that responsible dolphin watching operators have expressed concern about.

I could not believe what this boat was doing. The boatman was driving the boat directly towards the group, not parallel to the group, but straight towards the direction the group was swimming. This action split the group up and they moved on, surfacing some distance away from the boat. The boatman then repeated the action, moving at speed towards the group and splitting the group up again. The boat was clearing disturbing the dolphins.

As the boat was off in the distance there was nothing we could do so we carried on watching the groups near us and hoped the boat would not come near us. We remained in the same spot in the river with the three groups surfacing around us. Three dolphins swam towards the kayak and passed just metres away. Another group were socialising on the surface of the water 30 metres away. The different groups then came together in the same area and we just sat there enjoying the experience. But it wasn’t to last.

We heard the loud noise of a boat approaching at speed. We turned around and saw the blue boat speeding towards the group of dolphins which were now 40 metres from our kayak. We were livid as we watched the boat motor towards the group of dolphins. We shouted to the boatman to slow down and keep its distance but the boat drove straight into the combined group. The three groups of dolphins that had come together to socialise on the surface quickly dived and fled.

By this time we had enough, so we paddled over to the boat to politely ask the boatman to stop harassing dolphins and give him a bit of advice on how he should approach the dolphins. Maybe he’d then stop disturbing the dolphins and the tourists could also enjoy a better experience.

But the boatman would not listen to us and said that he knew what he was doing. So we give him a piece of our mind and asked the tourists if they knew what they had just been part of. The tourists kept quiet. They probably thought we were a couple of nutters. The boat then left and headed towards the Kuching Wetlands National Park. With the bad ‘Chi’ in the air we paddled back to shore.

If Sarawak is to have a sustainable dolphin watching industry, all boat operators need to behave in a responsible manner and put the dolphins first. Tourists also need to play their part. If they experience such behaviour they should ask their boatman to stop chasing the dolphins and report the operator. Better still don’t go out on a tour with an inexperienced operator. But in the long run the only solution will be the establishment of dolphin watching guidelines and proper training for inexperienced boatmen.

Kayaking to Salak Village

On Saturday FH20 and I went Kayaking with Irrawaddy dolphins again. Within five minutes of being on the water we spotted a small group of 3 dolphins swimming in the distance. However, they were roaming a large area and appeared to be searching for food. We let them be and decided to kayak to Kampung Salak, the Malay fishing village situated on Salak Island.

I’ve always enjoyed the Salak area. With its rich mangrove forests, wildlife and Malay fishing community, there’s always something going on in the river and heaps to see. OK, I’m usually there to see dolphins but sometimes I get distracted, forget the dolphins and soak up the other sights and sounds. When this happens I normally head to the Kuching Wetlands National Park, Sarawak’s first Ramsar site, and cruise the rivers and creeks in search of wildlife.

But this is not such a great idea when you are on a kayak. The Kuching Wetlands National Park is home to a relatively large population of crocodiles. I like kayaking with dolphins, I also like watching crocs but my preferred vehicle for croc watching is a sturdy boat.

So we headed to Salak village, paddling upriver as the fishing fleet were heading the other way. It’s the jelly fish season at the moment and at various sites along the coastline near Kuching you’ll see small two-men fishing craft roaming the waters in search of jumbo-sized jelly fish. Santubong and Salak are good fishing grounds for jelly fish. The local fishermen catch the jelly fish with a big stick with a hook attached. The jelly fish sell for 50-80 sen a piece and each boat can catch 50-100 jelly fish on a good day. The jelly fish are then salted at village ‘factories’. Some of the product is sold locally but most of it is exported, mainly to Japan.

After watching some macaque monkeys in the mangroves and a brief rest stop at Salak village we headed back out to sea. It was not long before we encountered three groups of Irrawaddy dolphins. We just sat in the kayak, with FH20 occasionally performing an ‘Irrawaddy kayak spin’, slowly moving the kayak 360 degrees so we could see the groups all around us.

Off in the distance we saw a tourist boat watching another group of Irrawaddy dolphins. As we sat in the kayak looking towards the tourist boat both of us could not believe what we were witnessing - an appalling act of irresponsible tourism.

To be continued. Irresponsible Tourism in Action

Friday, April 21, 2006

Dolphin bycatch in one village near Kuching

Perhaps the single largest threat to the Irrawaddy dolphins in Sarawak is by-catch, when fishermen accidentally catch dolphins in their nets. In Sarawak, fishermen will release a dolphin if it is found alive in their fishing nets. They will cut the nets to free the dolphin regardless of the cost they incur in damaged nets. I’ve spoken to many fishermen, young and old, that have done this. They say that the dolphins often appear as though they are crying and for years their tradition has been to release the dolphins so that is what they do.

But on many occasions dolphins are found dead in the nets. If this is the case the fishermen will take the dolphin back to their village and eat the meat, usually distributing it to family and friends in the village. On occasions the meat is sold. Their approach is ‘well its dead already so why waste it’. Some people may have a problem with this but it’s a fact of life in the coastal villages around Sarawak. If dolphins are found alive in the nets they are released, if they are already dead then nothing is wasted.

There is no monitoring of dolphin by-catch in Sarawak. So when dolphins are caught there is no system in place for the fishermen to report the death. As such the relevant wildlife agency does not record the number of fatalities and does not examine the dolphin carcasses.

So how bad is the problem of dolphin by-catch in Sarawak? No one really knows for sure. Interviews with residents of fishing villages in the Kuching division suggest that 2-3 dolphins are caught every year in each of the villages surveyed (Jaaman et al, 2000). Information I collected in 2002 and 2003 is also in line with this estimate.

In 2002 and 2003 I kept track of the number of cases of incidental dolphin catch by the fishing fleet of one village near Kuching. Fishing boats from this village fish in both offshore and near shore waters. Four dolphins were accidentally caught in fishing nets in 2002 and three dolphins in 2003. Of these seven bycatches, four were confirmed to be Irrawaddy dolphins.

In March 2002, two dolphins were caught in offshore waters, species not known but the dolphins were described as having long beaks. The fishermen found the dead dolphins in the morning after a heavy storm the night before. In the last week of April 2002, one dolphin was caught near Satang Island. The fishermen believed this was an Indo-Pacific Hump-back (or “white dolphin” as local fishermen call this species). The dolphin was dead in the nets when the fishermen found it.
On the morning of 8th May 2002 a juvenile Irrawaddy was accidentally caught in the middle of the Bako-Buntal bay. The dolphin was found dead when the fisherman hauled in his nets. The dolphin was brought back to the village and the meat consumed. I arrived in the village later on that day to see if anything remained. The dolphin had already been cut up and all that remained was the head and tail.

On 4th May 2003 three Irrawaddy dolphins (one fully grown adult and two smaller dolphins) were caught in nets between Tanjung Sipang and Pulau Lakei, near Bako National Park. The dolphins were dead when found and the meat was later sold in the village.

Pictured below is the remains of the juvenile Irrawaddy that was caught in 2002. Not a pretty sight. So what is the impact of by-catch on Sarawak’s population of Irrawaddy dolphins? No one knows. But one thing I do know is that some sort of monitoring system needs to be set up to ascertain how bad the problem is.


Jaaman, S.A., Ali, S.A., Anyi, Y.U.L., Miji, C. J., Bali, J., Regip, J.M., Bilang, R. and Wahed, R., 2000. Research and conservation of marine mammals in Sarawak: current knowledge. Hornbill 4: 17-28. Forest Department Sarawak, Kuching.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Another Irrawaddy dolphin breach

A couple of days ago I said that I’d only seen an Irrawaddy dolphin breach on three occasions. Make that four. I when out to Santubong with some friends from Kuching and KL on Easter Friday. Good trip, we saw four groups in total. The first group only consisted of two dolphins and we spotted them in the Santubong River itself, right near the Santubong bridge. They were light grey in colour. So just 1 minute into the trip and we saw dolphins. Not a bad start to the day.

We spotted the other groups in Santubong and Salak, all of them were dark grey/black. The different groups were dispersed around the estuary and did not come together as they did on Tuesday’s kayaking trip. Best of all we saw an Irrawaddy jump out of the water right in front of us, great little leap. It was not quite a full breach, more of a half-breach but most of us on the boat managed to see it.

Again the leap happened after the group we were watching had spent some time on the surface socialising and splashing around together. We spent an hour or so with the dolphins and then went wildlife watching in the Kuching Wetlands National Park.

We went on CPH Travels ‘Santubong Wildlife Tour’ and were not disappointed. Thanks to our guide Jamadi’s excellent skills at spotting wildlife we saw dolphins, long-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, silver-leaf monkeys, a stork billed kingfisher, fireflies and crocodiles. I’ll post on this another day.

A brief history of Sarawak's dolphin watching industry

Sarawak was the first destination in Malaysia to offer commercial dolphin watching tours. These tours were launched in 1998 and as far as I am aware remain the only commercial dolphin watching tours in the country. Sarawak’s dolphin watching industry is focused on one species, the Irrawaddy dolphin. However, on rare occasions Indo-Pacific Humpback and bottlenose dolphins are seen on the tours.

CPH Travel, a Kuching-based tour operator, pioneered the development of dolphin watching tours in Sarawak. The tours were developed thanks to a chance meeting in Kuching. In 1997 Dr Thomas Jefferson, a marine mammal expert, contacted CPH Travel in order to rent a boat to look for dolphins at Santubong. At the time CPH offered marine tours and mangrove cruises in the Santubong area.

In June 1997 a 3-day survey of the waters around Santubong was conducted and groups of Irrawaddy dolphins were frequently sighted. The results of the dolphin survey were published in the December 1997 issue of the Sarawak Museum Journal.

Following the dolphin survey, Dr Jefferson suggested that CPH should develop a dolphin watching tour. After conducting further research and using the knowledge gained from the initial dolphin survey, CPH Travel launched its inaugural dolphin watching tour in 1998.

In 2001 Stuart Green and I conducted a dolphin survey in the waters around Santubong, Salak, Damai Beach, Telaga Air, Tunjung Sipang, Rambungan, Sempadi Island, Satang Island and Buntal. We rented a boat from Ehwan who had just started to offer mangrove cruises near his village of Buntal. As a former fisherman, Ehwan is a mine of information on where dolphins are found. Following our dolphin survey Ehwan also started to offer dolphin watching tours in the Buntal-Bako bay.

In 2005 approximately 1,500 people took part in dolphin watching tours in Sarawak. 90% of demand is from foreign tourists. The majority of these visited Santubong and Salak with dolphin watching pioneer CPH Travel. The rest went on tours of Buntal with Ehrwan or tours around Santubong with other operators.

Although still a small scale activity, demand for dolphin watching tours has grown over the last 2-3 years. Whilst the effects of tourism are relatively small when compared to the various threats faced by Irrawaddy dolphins, it is important to develop dolphin watching in a sustainable manner so that the animals are not disturbed. Worldwide it is recognised that the greatest concern with dolphin watching activities is in the start-up phase in new areas. Sarawak is in this start-up phase.

So far dolphin watching has been developed in a sustainable manner. The main dolphin watching operators know what they are doing and are careful when approaching the dolphins. They operate their tours in a responsible manner and use excellent ‘guides-cum-spotters’. These dolphin spotters come from the villages near to where the tours take place so community members derive some of the economic benefits from the tours. For example, CPH’s Jamadi, who hails from Buntal, has to be one of the best dolphin spotters around. He has unbelievable eyes and can spot dolphins and other wildlife that most guides will miss. It’s joy to go on a tour with someone as experienced as Jamadi as you get to see heaps of wildlife.

Other tour operators are now moving into the market (or considering doing so) and some of these operators are not very knowledgeable. At some point in the near future it will be necessary to develop dolphin watching guidelines and codes of conduct for Sarawak’s dolphin watching industry. Such guidelines are common elsewhere in the world.

More on this another day.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A full breach by the world's most chilled out dolphin

I don’t know what this dolphin had for lunch! The picture shows that the most inactive dolphins in the world do sometimes put on energetic displays. Here an Irrawaddy dolphin performs a full breach, jumping clear out of the water. The picture captures the early part of the jump. The photo was taken in the Santubong River estuary on 5th June 2001. At the time we were conducting a dolphin survey. I’ve only seen this breaching behaviour three times in the 6 years that I have been going out dolphin watching near Kuching.

On that day we were watching a group of dolphins that had come together on the surface. They were splashing around, slapping their fins at each and generally seemed to be enjoying themselves. I don’t know what they were doing – playing, mating - who knows. They were on the surface for about 20 minutes, then the main group slowly moved off and suddenly a dolphin jumped out of the water right near the boat. I have not seen another photo of an Irrawaddy dolphin breaching in the wild. So, thanks Stuart for allowing me to post it here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Kayaking with Irrawaddy dolphins

What an amazing experience. I did not think we could pull it off but we did. A couple of months back, thanks to Kenny, I came across FH20’s Kuching Kayak. The first thing that struck me was that FH20 hangs out in the same rivers and estuaries that I do. He paddles a kayak whilst I sit in a boat and watch dolphins, but both of us enjoy the same rivers, creeks and estuaries. And both of us have somewhat obscure hobbies.

It took me all of 2 seconds to realise what I wanted to do - combine our hobbies and go kayaking with Irrawaddy dolphins. From reading his blog I knew FH20 would be up for it. Thing is we needed the weather on our side but this year’s wet season has dragged on for ever. So things were put on hold, until yesterday.

And it was worth the wait. My first dolphin watching trip of 2006 was one of the best dolphin watching trips I’ve ever had in Sarawak. Sitting in a kayak, bobbing around the Salak River, with Irrawaddy dolphins popping up all around the kayak, is dolphin watching heaven.

Four of us went on the trip, myself, FH20, Kenny and Peggy who works for WCS, an environmental NGO. We set off around 9 am from a small beach near Pasir Panjang and headed out to the mouth of the Santubong River where all the fishing boats were congregating. The fish were obviously there so maybe the dolphins were too. I asked a fisherman if he had seen any “pesut” and he said that they were near the other fishing boats. The boats were some distance away and we were about to head to a nearby beach when Peggy spotted a small group of dolphins heading towards us. They where heading upriver so we followed them into the Salak River, keeping our distance so as not to disturb them.

I was on a double kayak with FH20 so he did most of the paddling while I tried to get some shots. We ended up near Salak Island where more groups of dolphins started to appear. There were 4 or 5 groups of dolphins in the river. It was quite difficult to tell exactly how many groups there were as dolphins were surfacing all over the place.

As the dolphins were all round we just stopped in one area and the dolphins swam towards us. Being in a kayak, instead of a boat, offers a totally different dolphin watching experience from what I’m used to. For a start you are on the surface of the water rather than a few metres above the water so you get a real different take on things. The “blow” of the dolphins is also much loader as you are closer to the water.

And you can get close, or more to the point the dolphins get close to you. I was a bit concerned about how to approach the dolphins in a kayak; I didn’t want to harass them so we paddled parallel to the dolphins, keeping our distance. The beauty of being in a kayak is that once you get near the dolphins, you can just stop paddling and let the dolphins come to you. There is no propeller noise, just silence and after a while the dolphins start to come closer to the kayak.

At the time I thought this would mean I’d get some great photos. But trying to photo an Irrawaddy dolphin from a kayak is not easy. When you watch dolphins from a boat you can move around the boat to take photos if the dolphins surface behind you or to your side. I tried to do this on the kayak, by twisting my body to the side to photograph the dolphins. Big mistake, FH20 quickly said ‘no, you’ll topple us over’. I didn’t think of that, I was too excited.

We were pretty lucky to see so many dolphins, maybe 20-25 in total, all swimming around in the same section of the river. To be able to kayak with them was great. What an amazing day on the river.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Perfect Moment in Santubong:In Search of the Elusive Irrawaddy Dolphin

(This article first appeared in Vol. 59/3 2006 of the Malaysian Naturalist Magazine, published by the Malaysian Nature Society.)

I had been cruising the inshore waters for hours, scanning the sea for signs of marine life. It was a perfect day. The waters were calm, not the slightest swell on the mill pond-like surface of the South China Sea. The sun had burnt away the clouds leaving just the deep blue Borneo sky to watch over the boat and provide perfect visibility for the task at hand.

But despite the obvious perfection I had not seen what I came to see. That did not bother me. I was quite content to enjoy what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful coastal areas in the whole of Sarawak, an area of beaches, mudflats and mangrove-lined rivers that is home to thriving fishing communities and some of Sarawak’s most interesting wildlife.

The waters offshore from Santubong were teeming with life, both human and animal, as they always are. In the hours before, with the forested slopes of Mount Santubong as a backdrop to the bay, I had watched a flotilla of fishing craft fan out across the river estuary and motor further out to sea. Tiny two-man fishing boats hugged the coastline, staying within the safe confines of the river, and small trawlers worked the seas further out. I had also observed Proboscis monkeys squabbling in the treetops of the mangrove forest, white-bellied sea eagles hovering overhead, and egrets feeding on the mudflats.

It had been a pleasant day, so pleasant I had almost forgot the reason that I was there, the same reason I am there on many occasions during the months from March to October, the same reason I spend hours in the hot sun, bobbing around in a small boat, my Ang Moh nose turning red in the sun, my appearance morphing into something that resembles the residents of the nearby mangroves, the proboscis monkey or orang belanda.

Wildlife watching consists of long bouts of boredom, and bursts of excitement that make the boredom worthwhile. After three hours on the boat I had not reached my limits of boredom - there was too much else going on for that to happen - but I was starting to get anxious and began to feel that it was not my lucky day.

And then it happened. One of those wildlife experiences that makes you want to grow long tufts of facial hair and study marine biology.

The first dorsal fin appeared twenty meters to the right of the boat, a brief five second burst of activity as the dark grey coloured Irrawaddy dolphin surfaced for air, two short characteristic rolls and it was gone, but there was just enough time to catch sight of its distinctive features – the blunt rounded head and stubby triangular dorsal fin. The Irrawaddy dolphin is unusual looking dolphin, quite distinct from other oceanic dolphins.

Off to the left, another blow for air, this time a mother and calf surfaced together, again a couple of short rolls, calf attached to the mother’s side, and they were gone. In front of the boat one individual poked his head vertically out of the water to have a look around, this spy hopping behaviour made easy by the Irrawaddy’s flexible neck.

Within a few minutes the whole group was surfacing around the boat, eight individuals in total. This was a relatively large group as Irrawaddys usually swim around in groups of 2-6 individuals, although larger groups of 15 dolphins have been reported.

The Irrawaddy is shy and elusive creature, and in no way does it live up to the clich├ęd image of a dolphin leaping in the air, bow-riding or other energetic displays. It is slow moving and normally only shows the rear half of its body, hiding most of its head in the water as it surfaces for air. In general, each surface consists of a short blow of air and one or two rolls before diving. Occasionally it shows its tail before a deep dive.

In short, the Irrawaddy is the pipe and slippers couch potato of the dolphin world. If cetaceans wore clothes the Irrawaddy would wear a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. In most Internet dolphin watching polls the Irrawaddy doesn’t rank in the top twenty. This probably has as much to do with the fact that not many people have seen these creatures as to their relaxed behaviour.

Despite what others may think of this sedate, chilled-out creature, I can think of nothing better than spending a morning searching the waters of Santubong for Irrawaddy dolphins.

And that day was special.

The group near the boat was not the only group of Irrawaddy dolphins in the river mouth. Another group were circling a local fishing boat situated 50 metres or so away. I have seen this association with fishing boats on many occasions. Local fishermen in the Santubong area have a favourable attitude to the dolphins and are often seen throwing fish to them.

After hauling in their nets the fishermen sort out the ‘trash’, fish that can not be sold in the market. These fish are then thrown back in to the sea and the dolphins grab and easy free meal. The lone fisherman in his small wooden boat was doing exactly this and seemed to be enjoying the show as dolphins took it in turns, surfacing a couple of metres from the boat, grabbing their free lunch and waiting for more.

A third group of dolphins were feeding close to the mangroves next to the Damai Golf Course, just metres away from the unknowing golfers teeing off at the 16th hole. Three groups of Irrawaddy dolphins, perhaps a total of twenty individuals, all within sight of the boat, and all just 45 minutes from Kuching, the state capital of Sarawak.

It is not unusual to see large numbers of dolphins in and around Santubong. On occasions I have watched four or five groups, comprising up to thirty individuals, feeding in the relatively narrow confines of the Salak River.

Of the numerous trips I have made to observe Irrawaddy dolphins at Santubong this was the longest interaction I’ve had with a group of them. They had approached the boat and remained in and around the area for over an hour, surfacing regularly and indulging in periods of play and social interaction. I could not have asked for anything more. When one individual showed its fluke in preparation for a deep dive I knew it was time to slowly head back. The dolphins were moving on and so should I.

As I looked towards the sea in the direction the group was heading, I saw something I never imagined I would observe. The water near my boat opened up and the bulbous head of an Irrawaddy appeared, rapidly followed by a huge mass of flesh as the dolphin launched itself out the water, landing with an almighty crash, water spraying everywhere. A full ‘breach’ by one of the world’s most inactive dolphins, something I hadn’t seen in print, on TV or on the Internet, let alone in the wild.

The magnificent display was over in seconds but it is etched in my memory to this day. It was a close-up wildlife encounter, it was one of life’s perfect moments. But then Sarawak is that kind of place, a place that offers up more than its fair share of perfect moments.

The Malaysian Nature Society is the oldest environmental NGO in Malaysia. It is a membership-based organisation with branches across the country. For further details, check out . In Sarawak, the Kuching branch is quite active and regularly organises activities, events and field trips to learn more about Sarawak’s natural heritage. If you are in to nature and wish to join, email

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Is Sarawak an Irrawaddy Dolphin Hotspot?

Irrawaddy dolphins are among the most vulnerable dolphins in the world owing to the fact that their habitat of inshore waters coincides with areas of intensive human activity. The World Conservation Union’s 'Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World’s Cetaceans' states that the identification of “hotspots” where Irrawaddy dolphins occur in relatively high density is essential for conservation.

With Irrawaddy dolphins regularly sighted in a number of river systems and estuaries in the State, Sarawak could well be one of these hotspots. Whilst further research is required to determine this, the existence of Irrawaddy populations in various locations along the coastline means that Sarawak has a chance to play an important role in the conservation of the Irrawaddy dolphin.

This will require a concerted effort from a range of stakeholders - relevant government agencies, local communities, NGOs, research institutions and the tourism industry. Whilst funding is always a problem with any conservation initiative, international funding may be available owing to serious threats faced by the Irrawaddy across its distribution range.

Currently Sarawak attracts visitors from around the world who come to enjoy its national parks and the wildlife that inhabits its forests. Hornbills, Proboscis monkeys and Orang Utans have become popular icons for Sarawak. Perhaps one day the Land of the Hornbills may also be famed for a unique dolphin that inhabits the brackish waters of its coastline.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Dolphin Watching in Sarawak, Where to Go

The best locations near Kuching for watching Irrawaddy dolphins are Santubong, Salak and Buntal. These are the areas where tour operators generally go to. CPH Travel knows the Santubong and Salak areas very well, whilst Ehwan focuses on tours around Buntal, his home village.

Other areas where Irrawaddy dolphins can be spotted near Kuching include the waters around Bako National Park (keep an eye out when you travel by boat from Kampung Bako to the park HQ); Kuala Sibu Laut, although sightings are not that common, and Muara Tebas, a pretty good area but its not easy to just turn up and rent a boat, especially one that comes with a good guide-cum spotter.

For a map of the Kuching region, see

Further a field there are a number of areas where Irrawaddy dolphins are frequently spotted. Tanjung Manis, a port area near Sarikei, is highly developed and has heavy boat traffic, but dolphins are still found there. Best way to get to Sarikei is by express boat from Kuching. There are a lot of sightings of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Saribas area, especially between Beladin and Pusa. Pusa is about 300 kilometres from Kuching.

Whilst Irrawaddy dolphins are often sighted at Tanjung Manis and Saribas it is not easy to arrange a trip to see them. No tour operators or local boat owners offer trips in these areas. Basically you just have to turn up, talk to local fishermen and see if they want to rent you a boat for an exploratory dolphin watching trip. If you live near these areas then it might be worth trying, for foreign tourists the best bet is to go dolphin watching at Santubong, Salak or Buntal.

Dolphin Watching in Sarawak, Who to Go With

Currently there are only two operators in the Kuching area that regularly conduct dolphin watching tours. These are tour operator CPH Travel and boat owner Ehwan Ibrahim from Kampung Buntal. Both are experienced at locating and approaching Irrawaddy dolphins. If you are going on a dolphin watching tour, bear in mind that Irrawaddys are not the easiest of dolphins to spot. They are shy and only appear on the surface very briefly. Sightings are not guaranteed so you might want to combine dolphin watching with another marine tour, for example a mangrove cruise. That way you are guaranteed to see some wildlife, even if you don’t see a dolphin.

CPH Travel pioneered dolphin watching tours in Sarawak. They first offered the tours in 1998. They have a range of modern boats and their boatmen are good dolphin spotters. Most of CPH’s boatmen come from the fishing villages in the Santubong area. CPH’s dolphin watching tours focus on the Santubong estuary. Tours depart from the Santubong boat club, just 5-10 minutes away from the areas where dolphins are commonly spotted.

In addition to offering dedicated dolphin watching tours, CPH offer a range of marine tours including mangrove and wildlife cruises, trips to the Kuching Wetlands National Park, snorkelling trips to Satang Island and full day boat cruises that take in all the attractions of the wider Santubong area. Most of CPH’s marine tours incorporate some dolphin watching but this is not the primary focus of the tours.

One of CPH’s most popular trips is the Santubong Wildlife Cruise which departs around 4 pm and returns around 7.30 pm. First you go in search of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Santubong estuary; then you head upriver to check out the mangroves and wildlife (with good chances of seeing proboscis monkeys). As darkness falls you go in search of crocodiles, using flashlights to locate the croc’s eye shine.

CPH Travel, 70 Padungan Road
93100 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Tel: 082-242289 Email:

Ehwan bin Ibrahim is a boat owner from Buntal. A former fisherman, he started offering mangrove and wildlife tours in and around the Buntal area about 6 years ago. He has two fibreglass boats; both can take a maximum of 6 people. Ehwan uses boatmen from his village, although sometimes he runs the tour himself.

As the Bako-Buntal bay is a wider stretcher of water than the Santubong estuary, the chances of seeing dolphins are perhaps not as high as Santubong as you have to cover a wider area. But during hide tide the dolphins sometimes enter the Buntal River itself, offering great opportunities to view and photograph the dolphins.

Ehwan will usually combine dolphin watching with a mangrove/wildlife tour. You first head out of the village into the estuary to search for Irrawaddy dolphins, if they are not around the boat turns back and enters the Buntal river. You then go in search of wildlife such as silver-leaf monkeys, macaques, proboscis monkeys, estuarine crocodiles and whole range of birdlife. All the time your get to see life in the bay and the river, with fishing craft coming and going and heaps going on.

Ehwan is quite flexible. Tell him what you want to see and do and he’ll tailor the boat cruise to you requirements. The good thing about Ehwan’s tours is that you get to immerse yourself in Kampung life as well. After a tour you can have a stroll round Buntal village, or sit down and have a chat with Ehwan and his mates. Ehwan’s wife Serimah also bakes some of the best Malay-style layer cakes in Sarawak so you can even stuff your face with cakes after your trip.

Ehwan Ibrahim
No. 211, Kampung Buntal, Sarawak, Malaysia.
Tel: 082-846977 or 019-8785088

Ehwan’s house is opposite the 88 Seafood Restaurant, just before the village’s market area.

Finally, a word of warning. Over the last year or so a number of other tour operators in Kuching have started to market dolphin watching tours, or at least claim that they do. Some of these operators use CPH or Ehwan so essentially act as booking agents. However, some use inexperienced boatmen and guides-cum-spotters who do not know how to approach dolphins properly. Sad to say but many of these operators are clueless. One even advertises Irrawaddy dolphin tours by using a photo of a Spinner Dolphin! Whilst you may see dolphins on these trips, your chances of success are less than if you use the more experienced and responsible operators/boat owners.

Dolphin Watching in Sarawak, When to Go

Sarawak’s dolphin watching season runs from April to November, basically during the dry season months. Whilst the Irrawaddy dolphins are around during the wet season, the sea conditions often prevent boats from going out to sea. Even if you can go out the swell and rain often make it difficult to spot dolphins. Irrawaddy dolphins only surface briefly so if the water is choppy you often miss the surfacing behaviour. Some years the wet season will end in February so it is possible to go out in March. Likewise if the rainy season comes late it is sometimes possible to go out in December.