Saturday, April 15, 2006

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.


FH2O said...

Thanks for the information and certainly food for thought on the guidelines which hopefully would be drawn up soon.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate what fh20 said but certainly not about the copycat tour operator. bear in mind that Darawak Dolphin belong to everybody. not just one individual or company

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate what fh20 said but certainly not about the copycat tour operator. bear in mind that Darawak Dolphin belong to everybody. not just one individual or company

pesut said...

I agree Sarawak's dolphins belong to everyone and not just one company or individual. But the new operators must learn to be more responsible and put the dolphins first. A month or so ago I was out at Santubong and saw an inexperienced operator speeding around the bay. He was going so fast he actually drove through one group of dolphins without even seeing them. The dolphins dived and fled the area. We are seeing more and more dolphins at Santubong with chunks cut out of their fins from boat collisions. My guess is that this is due to the inexperienced operators racing around the area.

Anonymous said...

There are alot of Tour guide who is really experience in Dolphin watch. If only they are being given the chance to prove themselves. I remembered that there is one tour guide who use to go with Jamadi, I have seen him guideing once. Fantastic

Denni said...

Oh, I wish I had known about FH-2-GO and the dolphins when I visited the area in 2005!

Good luck with the dolphin watching initiative. Responsible operators will benefit the community.

I'm thrilled to hear about the research project as well. It might be useful to hook up with an international conservation body, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society or the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society which could assist through grants and advertising (if the guidelines are being enforced) :)