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.