Header image courtesy of pruit phatsrivong (via Shutterstock)
On the subject of wild animals indigenous to Hong Kong, the first thing that comes to mind is often the sublime image of a pink dolphin leaping out of the sea, forming a curve of liveliness and joy. Commonly known as Chinese white dolphins and more formally as the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins or Sousa chinensis, these friendly marine mammals are commonly found in coastal areas of Hong Kong, the Pearl River Delta, Taiwan, and Singapore.
The dolphins found around Hong Kong’s waters, however, are known for one unique trait—their characteristic pink hue. Friendly, intelligent, and ever-so-cute, the pink dolphin is one of the most beloved icons of Hong Kong and was even chosen to be the mascot of the 1997 handover. However, it is also one of the biggest sacrifices we have made to achieve economic and social developments, as the constant human activities in their habitats have caused their endangerment, leading numbers to dwindle to mere dozens. But how did these dolphins become an icon for Hong Kong—and why are they pink, anyway?
Just like another famously pink animal—the flamingo—Hong Kong’s dolphins are not actually born pink. Like other Sousa chinensis calves, they are born dark grey and eventually lighten over time, adopting a mottled grey colouring in their juvenile stage before finally becoming pink in adulthood. There is no conclusive explanation to how the adult dolphins in Hong Kong got their signature pink colour, rather than the grey or white skin of their counterparts found near Taiwan or Singapore.
Many academics believe that the dolphins in Hong Kong lack pigmentation on their skin as they live in murky water with minimal sunlight. The pink is simply the colour of their blood vessels seen through the skin—similar to flushing on the human body. They live and travel in groups, and have to come up to the water surface to breathe every once in a while, creating the lively, iconic image.
The spotting of Chinese pink dolphins in China dates back to as early as the Tang dynasty. They were once considered to be the real identity of the mythical Lo Ting. Fishermen called them “black taboo” (烏忌; wu1 gei6) and “white taboo” (白忌; baak6 gei6) and stayed away from them as the dolphins would eat their catches or simply scare away the fish in the area. Scholars believe that “black taboo” and “white taboo” refer to the grey calves and the light-skinned adults, respectively.
The earliest Western record, on the other hand, appeared in the year 1637, when travelling merchant Peter Mundy documented the dolphins as “swordfish” in his journal and described them as “white as milk, some of them ruddy withal.” Fun fact: The Chinese translation of dolphin actually means “sea pig” (海豚; hoi2 tyun4), as its size, shape, and colour is said to resemble the appearance of a pig.
The Chinese pink dolphins in Hong Kong reside in coastal areas with brackish water, especially around Lantau Island, Chek Lap Kok, Tai O, and other outlying islands. In 1995, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) began studying and tracking the Chinese pink dolphins in Hong Kong, counting 88 to 145 dolphins in the first three years. The dolphin’s unique appearance and its annual return to the Pearl River Delta have earned it the title of official mascot in the 1997 handover, an important page in Hong Kong’s development. The Chinese pink dolphin was also voted the favourite marine animal in Hong Kong in 2007.
One would have thought that with such a prominent title, the pink dolphins must be well-treasured in Hong Kong. But the reality is the total opposite. The population of pink dolphins in Hong Kong has significantly diminished, from 80 in 2011 to 37 in 2021, with the lowest record of individual sightings being only 32 in 2018.
In the early 1990s, the building of the Chek Lap Kok International Airport became a threat to the pink dolphins’ survival, causing water and noise pollutions in the area. At the same time, the land reclamation process robbed the dolphins of one of their major habitats, as did the construction process for Hong Kong Disneyland. Fishing businesses in Hong Kong also poses perils to the dolphins, injuring many with propellors and fishing nets.
In 2015, the media reported the tragic scene of a female dolphin identified as CH34 or “Ropey,” who was seen lugging around the body of her dead calf for seven days. She kept pushing the calf to the surface of the water, ostensibly so it could breathe again, but to no avail.
In the same year, a dolphin identified as WL212 was found to be severely injured by a ship’s propellor, its tail nearly severed. The incident made the news and caught the attention of local and international media and individuals, who nicknamed the young dolphin “Hope.” Despite efforts made to save the poor dolphin, Hope passed away from his wounds just days after being taken to Ocean Park for treatment. Nevertheless, the tragedy alerted Hong Kongers about the endangerment of the species and caused a public outcry for the government to take immediate actions to protect pink dolphins.
The Chinese pink dolphin was listed as “vulnerable” on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Hong Kong government included the pink dolphin into the list of protected animals in the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance (Cap. 170). Protected zones have also been developed to house the pink dolphins, such as the Sha Chau and Lung Kwu Chau Marine Park and the Brothers Marine Park. The AFCD implemented the “Code of Conduct for Dolphin Watching,” a popular tourist activity in Hong Kong. Non-governmental organisations such as Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society also dedicate their operations to preserving the precious species in Hong Kong.
However, these measures were but futile symptomatic treatments. Not only are licensed fishing activities still permitted in marine parks—posing competition against the dolphins in their primary food source—but the numerous infrastructure projects in the city have also returned the preservation efforts to zero. The construction of the third runway at the airport and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, in particular, are severely affecting two of the dolphins’ main habitats. The high-speed ferries travelling between Hong Kong, Macau, and Zhuhai, are also reported to be the most significant cause of dolphin injuries in recent years.
In 2020, the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation reported 11 fatal cases of pink dolphin strandings, out of the total 52 cases of cetacean strandings. In their 2020–2021 report, the AFCD found that 18 frequently sighted individuals in Hong Kong have disappeared, which is the highest record yet of disappearance. While Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins can live up to 40 years old, 46 percent of the pink dolphin calves in Hong Kong do not live past the age of two.
If you encounter a stranded dolphin or any other cetaceans, please call (+852) 1823 to inform the AFCD.
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has halted all high-speed ferry services since February 2020, and a significant number of Chinese pink dolphins have returned to Hong Kong waters. Although a favourable respite for the dolphins, the imminent dangers of the resumption of the transportation services and future constructions in the area are still lurking behind the temporary peace. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has, therefore, released an emergency action plan in hopes of saving not only the dolphins in Hong Kong, but in the Pearl River Delta as well.
In 2018, wildlife photographer and filmmaker Daphne Wong released Breathing Room, an award-winning documentary detailing the struggles of pink dolphins in Hong Kong which was inspired by the story of Ropey and her dead calf.
Currently, a number of organisations continue in their efforts to protect pink dolphins and other local wildlife, including the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong, Saving the Handover Mascot, WWF Hong Kong, and Greenpeace Hong Kong, as well as the government’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.