Saturday, July 29, 2006

Colour Variation

In an article that appeared in the December 1997 issue of the Sarawak Museum Journal, Isabel Beasley and Thomas Jefferson noted that the colour of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mahakam River in Kalimantan (Indonesia) was different from the colour of those found in north Borneo.

“The possibility of multiple stocks of Irrawaddy dolphins in Borneo seems high. Interestingly, Irrawaddy dolphins from the Mahakam River area appear to be very light, almost white in colour, while those observed along the north coast of Borneo have been consistently dark grey.”

The authors had conducted marine mammal surveys in Sabah and Sarawak, where the focused on rivers around Kuching. Whilst most of the dolphins sighted at Santubong, Salak and Buntal are dark grey, not all of them are. Groups of light grey dolphins are frequently sighted. It is not uncommon to see groups of both dark and light grey coloured Irrawaddy dolphins in the same area on the same day. The above picture was taken yesterday at Santubong where both dark and light grey dolphins were present in the estuary.

In their 1997 article Isabel Beasley and Thomas Jefferson pointed out that there were several areas where long term studies of dolphins in Borneo were feasible. They also highlighted the need to further investigate the conservation status of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mahakam River. Since the article was published no in-depth long term study of Irrawaddy dolphins has been conducted in Sarawak. However, the Mahakam population in Kalimantan has been the subject of research, much of it done by Dr Danielle Kreb and her colleagues at the Yayasan Conservasi RASI, the Conservation Foundation for Rare Aquatic Species of Indonesia. For more information see the

Saturday, July 15, 2006

New Pamphlet on Sarawak's Irrawaddy Dolphins

The Sarawak Tourism Board recently published a pamphlet on Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins as part of a product development initiative related to the state’s dolphin watching industry. The pamphlet will be given out to tourists who participate in dolphin watching tours. It contains a fact file on the Irrawaddy dolphin with information on habitat, distribution, appearance, behaviour, diet, reproduction, group size, and an overview of the various conservation threats faced by the dolphins. It also discusses association with local fisherman, where to go dolphin watching and provides brief details about other marine mammals of Sarawak. The general idea is to improve on-board interpretation so that tourists can learn more about the dolphins.

The pamphlet also contains a range of photos taken at Santubong, Salak, Sibu Laut and Buntal. Many of these photos first appeared in this blog. The back page image by Chien Lee was featured here in May.
So, if you are in town and plan to go dolphin watching ask for a copy of the pamphlet.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

More dolphin by-catch

Unfortunately another Irrawaddy dolphin was accidentally caught in fishing nets near Kuching last month. This time it was a new born calf, less than a metre long. As you can see from the photo it was tiny. Usual story, the fisherman hauled in his nets and found the dolphin which had already drowned. As I’ve mentioned before the true scale of dolphin by-catch in Sarawak waters is not known as the relevant wildlife agency does not monitor the situation or encourage fishermen to report cases of incidental catch. Research carried out a few years ago in the Kuching Division suggests that 2-3 dolphins are caught each year in villages located near known dolphin populations. The informal reports I get suggest that the figure is often higher, although numbers fluctuate from year to year.

50 Indo-pacific humpbacks offshore from Bako

On Friday 7th July a large group of around 50 indo-pacific humpback dolphins where spotted near Bako National Park. A group from the Malaysian Nature Society were in the area and had the pleasure of seeing the dolphins up close, surfacing near the boat with loud blows. I wish I was there. Indo-pacifics are occasionally spotted in nearshore waters near Kuching. They are more commonly seen in the dry season and sometimes enter rivers. Most sightings near Kuching are of small groups of less than 10 dolphins or lone individuals. For example groups have been spotted near Santubong and Muara Tebas and a lone individual was once spotted heading up the Santubong river towards the bridge.

False Images: Cambodia is not Sarawak

Yesterday, The Eastern Times a local newspaper printed a front cover story on Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins accompanied by a photo of an Irrawaddy taken in the Mekong River. The photo shows an Irrawaddy dolphin kneeling on a sand bar or rock. The photo (see here) was taken by Pete Davidson, although the Eastern Times did not provide a credit or copyright reference or an accurate photo caption. As such the reader is led to believe that the photo was taken in Sarawak which is simply not true.

The photo is a spectacular image that shows some unusual behaviour. But this behaviour is not something that you will ever see in Sarawak. Recently, there has been a lot of hype surrounding the Irrawaddy dolphins of Sarawak and dolphin watching tours. Whilst press coverage increases awareness it is no help at all if articles are poorly researched and images mis-represent reality. Earlier in the week The Star ran a poorly penned piece on Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins with a misleading headline and now the Eastern Times has chipped in by showing a picture of a dolphin taken in Cambodia to accompany an article on dolphins in Sarawak.

I’ve been told that The Eastern Times article has resulted in inquiries asking tour operators to take them to see Irrawaddy dolphins sitting on sandbars like in the picture! If you are considering going on a local dolphin watching tour, bare in mind that you are not going to seeing Irrawaddy dolphins sitting on rocks and performing circus tricks in Sarawak. If you need accurate information on what kind of behaviour you will see on a tour, speak to a tour operator that knows the dolphins and has a track record of running tours. As I’ve said before go with a responsible operator such as CPH Travel who pioneered dolphin watching tours in Sarawak. Avoid the inexperienced operators and ignore local press articles that show pictures of unusual dolphin behaviour taken in other countries.