SIDE ORDERS

Hong Kong's Dolphins Will Tickle You Pink

A Chinese white dolphin jumps out of the water off Hong Kong. Blood rushing to the surface of the endangered mammal's pale skin gives it a rosy pink glow.
A Chinese white dolphin jumps out of the water off Hong Kong. Blood rushing to the surface of the endangered mammal's pale skin gives it a rosy pink glow. (2000 Photo By Vincent Yu -- Associated Press)

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

WHAT: A close-up look at Hong Kong's famous pink dolphins.

WHY GO: The dolphins are going head to head with Hong Kong development, and bets are with the builders.

I was sitting in the middle of my Hong Kong hotel lobby on a Sunday morning. It was more or less empty, save for a few other tired-looking lumps scattered on the furniture. I watched them over the lid of my coffee cup, trying to figure out who else thought this was going to be a good idea.

A young woman named Ho Tak Ching ducked her head around the corner. "Dolphin watchers!" she called out. "Dolphin watchers! Come with me!"

Sunday morning in Hong Kong is -- how shall I put it? -- a time of rest. It takes a lot to wrest Hong Kong tourists from the lure of the dim sum cart, yet here we were, 13 strangers on the Hong Kong Dolphinwatch tour, united by nothing except an urge to see the endangered Chinese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis) frolicking in the waters of Asia's International City.

Back in 1997, the white dolphin beat out the panda as the official mascot of Hong Kong's handover to China, but today they don't live quite as large in the public imagination. Though the government figure is slightly higher, Dolphinwatch estimates that only between 100 and 150 of these dolphins reside in Hong Kong waters, and the company's pitch is that this small number is being threatened by the city's reckless growth: land reclamation, boat traffic and industrial pollution.

"If you see anything white or pink in color and it's just bobbing up and down, that's trash," Ho said. If it's white or pink and dives in and out of the water two or three times, "that's a dolphin."

On a clear day, the views can't be beat in Hong Kong, a forest of technicolor skyscrapers tucked into the skirts of lush mountains that offer wide views of the Pearl River Delta. On a not so clear day . . . not so much. International business types who fear for their children's lungs are leaving town, and the tourist industry is wringing its collective hands.

So it only follows that for some, eco-tourism in Hong Kong makes about as much sense as standing on the bathroom scale while eating a pint of Ben & Jerry's: Why bother? But for those who want to give it a go, Dolphinwatch is one of the few tours offering visitors a socially clued-in element to their stay.

Once onboard, I quickly exchanged the requisite "Flipper" jokes with the only other American on the tour. That was pretty much where I thought international dolphin culture began and ended. Wrong. On the upper deck, while heading out to the small Soko Islands, a dolphin hangout, I met Sharyn West, a university lecturer living in Oxford, England. "Have you ever met a person who didn't want to see a dolphin if they could?" West asked me.

As it turned out, West belongs to another enclave of dolphin watchers in Mozambique called Dolphin Care Africa, dedicated to working with a fragile dolphin population off Africa's east coast.

"You don't have to make a case for dolphins being compelling to humans," she continued. "They just are."

Technically, Hong Kong's famous pink dolphins are white. One of the first things Ho explained to us is that when they swim, blood rushes to the surface of their pale skin, lending them a rosy glow. "Just like when we exercise and our faces get red," she said. "They're blushing."

As we cruised Hong Kong's harbor and its surrounding waters, Ho would periodically cry out, pointing out a pink fin here or there in the monochromatic water. The tour delivered: We had seven separate sightings in a few hours, though the animals we bumped into didn't exactly wave a flipper or leap out of their murky habitat in synchronized dolphin play.

For some, though, the pink dolphin tour is just a good way to get out on a boat and soak up this photogenic city from another perspective. I asked British meteorologist Richard Wild why he'd torn himself away from his room at the Ritz-Carlton to come learn about the plight of the pink dolphin. "I've never seen a dolphin in the wild before," he answered, shrugging. "And I didn't have anything else to do. So it was either shopping, or dolphins."

-- Krista Mahr

Hong Kong Dolphinwatch tours leave Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays from the Kowloon Hotel lobby (19-21 Nathan Road, Tsimshatsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong). Tickets are about $45 for adults, $25 for children. Details: 011-852-2984-1414, http://www.hkdolphinwatch.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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