“Yes, yes!” shouted Samlain, as he pointed directly to my left. I quickly turned my head, just in time to catch a glimpse of a grey fin as it ducked beneath the water. An Irrawaddy dolphin. “Yes, yes!” he shouted again. I got a better look this time, marvelling at the fact that this was the first wild dolphin I’d ever seen. It was not nearly as graceful as I had imagined, with its beluga-like head and flat, curved face, but it was mesmerising nonetheless.
The Irrawaddy dolphin is a species of river dolphin found in parts of South Asia. They inhabit stretches of the Mekong in Cambodia and Laos, and can also be found in pockets of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. They look kind of like beluga whales in my opinion, and are incredibly distinctive, with a flat, curved face and a mouth that seems to pull up into a smile. Because of this, they’ve earned the adorable nickname “the smiling face of The Mekong.”
And the Mekong was where I was. I was floating along its murky waters in a shabby, yellow longtail boat, driven by an enthusiastic Cambodian man named Samlain. While language was somewhat of a barrier between us, he was very much able to communicate his admiration for these wonderful creatures.
Where to find the Irrawaddy dolphins
Kratie is a town on the banks of the Mekong River in Cambodia. It’s slightly off the beaten tourist path, but I’d heard that a pod of about 20 Irrawaddy dolphins lived on this stretch of the Mekong and I was eager to see them.
The dolphins can be found about 15-20 kilometres north from Kratie, near a small village called Kampi. Myself and my roommate, Natalia, hired a motorbike to drive there, which took us through some really beautiful scenery with views over the Mekong. We knew we had arrived when we spotted a large dolphin statue on the side of the road, indicating this is where we should be to see the dolphins.
It turns out that there’s a whole dolphin watching business here. A group of boats wait patiently by the bank to escort tourists out onto the river. These boatmen know exactly where and when the dolphins will be, so you’re almost guaranteed to see them. We paid a fare of $7 and were boated out a couple of hundred metres.
Sure enough, the dolphins were here! Every few minutes, Samlain would say “yes, yes” and point to a dolphin, who we could see rising slightly out of the water. I didn’t think it would be so easy to find them so I was extremely grateful.
Sadly, the Irrawaddy dolphins are endangered
Sadly, the Irrawaddy dolphins are being threatened by illegal fishing practices, destroyed habitat and the building of dams. Because of this, their numbers are rapidly declining – The World Wildlife Fund estimates that only about 92 dolphins still remain.
Many of the dolphins drown after getting tangled in fishing nets, and some fishermen practice the highly illegal “blast fishing” whereby explosives are used to kill everything within a certain radius – including the dolphins.
The dolphins are also facing threats from pollution – toxic chemicals such as DDT, mercury and PCB have leached into the Mekong due to mining activities. These chemicals are causing damage to the dolphins’ immune system, leading to health problems, and ultimately, premature death.
Furthermore, the building of the Don Sahong dam in Southern Laos will directly affect the habitat of the dolphins and lead to further decline. Members from the Preah Rumkel ecotourism community say that explosions deployed during construction of the dam may force the Irrawaddy dolphins to move upstream. Some even worry that the explosives will directly kill the dolphins.
The dolphins were not exactly what I would call graceful, but they were incredibly beautiful and would rise slightly out of the water every so often. At least two babies were in this group which was lovely to see, given their endangered status. They didn’t seem at all phased by our presence so we sat and watched them for a good hour or so.
I hope that the huge efforts to conserve the dolphins work, but I do worry that they won’t be around for too much longer. As long as dangerous fishing techniques and Mekong river pollution continue, it’s sadly unlikely that they will be saved.
If you visit Cambodia, I highly recommend you head to Kratie to catch a glimpse at these wonderful creatures before its too late!
Thank you for reading!
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