A glimpse of the mysterious Irrawaddy dolphin

By Patricia Hului

THEY ARE CHARISMATIC and playful. Yet their friendly and fun nature has been exploited for marine tourism all over the world.

Tourist-packages like dolphin-watching and swimming with dolphins are among the tourism activities revolving around these highly intelligent animals.

Here in Sarawak, we are the only state in Malaysia that has commercial dolphin watching as a tourism activity.


GOODBYE SHORE: One of the two boats we rode on during the dolphin watch.

GOODBYE SHORE: One of the two boats we rode on during the dolphin watch.


In Kuching, dolphins can be found in Kuching Bay which encompasses the area from Telaga Air to the west and the Bako peninsula to the east, as well as the rivers that connect these areas, Sungai Sibu Laut, Sungai Salak and Sungai Santubong.

The Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch (MNSKB) held a guided dolphin watching trip on Aug 24.

This lead-up activity to the Santubong Nature Festival (November 8 – 9) was jointly organised with Permai Rainforest Resort and supported by Kuching City North Hall and Sarawak Museum.

Over a dozen members of MNSKB, members of the public and media boarded two boats heading to the mouth of Santubong and Salak rivers.

As the boats stopped hundreds of meters away from Pulau Kera at Kuching Bay, all of the dolphin watchers managed to catch sight of at least four Irrawaddy dolphins riding the waves.

It could have been beginner’s luck; due to the behaviour of these dolphins, the participants were warned of the possibility of not seeing any dolphinsat all.

The educational boat ride was cut short due to rain and choppy waves splashing everyone on board.


A windy, choppy day to be out dolphin watching.

A windy, choppy day to be out dolphin watching.


Unfortunately, we only managed to catch blurry images of these dark Irrawaddy dolphins as the choppy waves made the boats unsteady and the Irrawaddy dolphins were too swift.

Still, everybody who signed up for the trip did not leave empty handed as during this trip to educate the participants on these lovely cetaceans was Cindy Peter, a research fellow from Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conversation (IBEC) University Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).

“The opportunity came back in 2008 when I finished my degree. I wanted to do something about wildlife again because I studied wildlife management for my degree,” said Cindy as she remembered how she got involved with dolphins studies in Sarawak.

The opportunity was as a research assistant for Sarawak Dolphin Project (SDP) which was launched in May 2008.

SDP was a project founded through a MoU between Unimas, Sarawak Forestry Corporation and Sarawak Shell Berhad where they focused on the four dolphin species most commonly found in Sarawak waters, Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris), finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides), Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis) and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus).

Through this project Cindy was able to continue her master research in 2009 to study Irrawaddy dolphins in Kuching bay.

Cindy shared that for her studies, “I looked at the habitat preferences, how far from the river mouth they prefer and as well as the population number.”

She pointed out that through her masters studies there are about 150 to 200 Irrawaddy dolphins in Kuching Bay and Bako-Buntal area and about 150 finless porpoises in that area.

A question was raised to Cindy whether this population of dolphins in Kuching was growing or not.

Cindy shared, “It is hard to say whether the population is increasing or not because last time back in 2008 no one knew how many dolphins there were.

“Only now that we have the number,” she said “we have to continue monitoring. Only then we knew the number increasing or decreasing.”

What does the future hold for dolphins in Sarawak? Cindy hoped that she could study the morphometric and genetic makeup of Irrawaddy dolphins for her PhD, believing that the gene pool for the population here could be different from the ones they found in Australia and Indo-China.

“And another thing we are hopefully looking into is acoustics. Acoustics is the study of dolphins and whales’ sounds,” Cindy stated.

So far, the study of dolphins in Kuching bay has been restricted due to the dry season from March until October and daytime for safety precautions.

Little is known about what the dolphins do during the wet season.

She explained, “Using acoustics, we want to deploy equipment in certain areas and we want to see at what time they were there and they are doing.”

Currently there are no dolphin studies using boat surveys being done.

“We are now looking into the economic value of dolphin watch here in Kuching because we know it is a blooming interest, an economic importance but no one knows how much profit it is bringing to the state,” Cindy said.

“It is hard to say if it is affecting the population here. That is why everyone emphasised Safe Dolphin Watch, not only is it safe for us humans but also safe for the dolphins.”

According to Cindy, there is always risk when there is wildlife and human interaction anywhere even on the lands.

“If it is done responsibly, it is safe for the animals.” Cindy emphasised on not feeding or touching the dolphins as we do not know what disease they might have.

Boaters are highly advised to drive their boats in a predictable manner and avoid sudden changes of direction.

Cindy also shared that any complaints on irresponsible dolphin watching by any tour operators can be made to the Sarawak Tourism Board.

These dolphins are protected under several laws here in Sarawak; Fisheries Act 1985, Fisheries (Control of Endangered Species) Regulation 1999 and Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998.

Unlike their land counterparts, it is hard to know what these marine mammals are doing underwater.

Hence for Cindy, studying dolphins has always been intriguing for her as dolphins are mysterious.

The Irrawaddy dolphin is only one of the animals that call the vast spread of Santubong offshore home. Back on the dry land of Santubong Peninsula, many more animals are waiting to be discovered.

One of the ways to discover Santubong is by joining SNF where MNSKB are giving environmental awareness on both the natural and cultural values of the Santubong peninsula.

For more information on Santubong Nature Festival email to [email protected] or visit http://mnskuching.blogspot.com/ and http://santubongnaturefestival.blogspot.com

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