Save the Irrawaddy Dolphin Project: Day 5

Day 5: 2 May 2015 (Saturday): Perfect ending with more dolphin sightings

by Dr Alfonso Lopez

Today is the last day of our survey and we really hope to end our 5-day trip on a high note.

There was a slight change in our itinerary this morning. Instead of heading to the lake, we went to a small local street-side market some 500 meters from our hotel. All the stallholders were fishermen selling their catch of the day. Some of these included spotted catfish, giant snakehead fish and freshwater prawns.

giant freshwater shrimp

I interviewed a lady stallholder who told me that she had noticed a decrease in daily catch over the last decade. She also recalled seeing more Irrawaddy dolphins in Songkhla Lake while fishing some 10 years back.

dr komsin market

After our trip to the market, it was time to get back to business – dolphin spotting!

It was already late morning by the time we started, and the sun was scorching hot. There were still no signs of dolphins, and the unbearable heat really put our patience to the test.

nantarika alfonso santi ninwaat irrawaddy santi ninwat

Suddenly, a surprise phone call turned things around. Mr Santi (Senior Marine Biologist at Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR), Songkhla Lake Centre) received a call from Uncle Nuay (leader of the local fishermen’s dolphin conservation group), who told him that he had spotted a group of Irrawaddy dolphins whilst removing his fish and crab traps.

Fortunately, our second boat (Team 2) happened to be around that particular area. Upon hearing the news, they immediately headed over to try and gather some pictures and information. However, the encounter was too brief as the dolphins disappeared from sight shortly after.

We conducted the entire boat survey on traditional Thai long-tail boats. The shy Irrawaddy dolphins are used to encountering such boats, which made it easier for us to approach them. In previous surveys some people have used boat motors instead, but the dolphins immediately disappeared upon detecting the loud sounds and strong water movement.

thai longtail boat songkhla lake

During our survey, we were joined by Dr Xuelei from First Institute of Oceanography, State Oceanic Administration. He was conducting acoustic studies on the lake where the institute has multiple stations to record dolphin sounds. These equipment and techniques are used by the Chinese in population surveys of the finless porpoise in China and the Chinese river dolphin.

Just as we were about to call it a day, our survey plane started to fly in circles above a specific area of the lake. This was a sign that they have spotted dolphins there!

Two teams, including mine, moved in on the area. It took us around 15 minutes to locate the dolphins. Again, it was only a very brief encounter but luckily, we managed to take some photo IDs of them. We realised that we have already identified a few of these individuals on previous days. All in all, we managed to photo ID about 12 Irrawaddy dolphins over the last five days. That’s approximately 50% of the estimated Irrawaddy dolphin population in Songkhla Lake.

irrawaddy dolphin selfie

The past five days have been a truly amazing experience. I am very honoured to represent Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) in this project, and to work with the very professional teams from DMCR and Chulalongkorn University (CU), including some of the top marine biologists in Thailand who have done groundbreaking surveys on whales, dolphins and dugongs. This is just the beginning of an on-going collaboration between RWS, DMCR and CU to preserve the Irrawaddy dolphins in Songkhla Lake.

dr komsin.somchai.dr ning alfonso xuelei

I would also like to thank my good friend and colleague Dr Komsin Sahatrakul, Senior Veterinarian at the S.E.A. Aquarium, RWS. His meticulous nature has ensured seamless coordination with the various parties. And him being a Thai national, he was my go-to translator who made communicating with the locals so much easier. Thank you Dr Mam! (as he is known in Thailand).

dr alfonso dr komsin songkhla lake

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the two other project leaders, without whom this project would not have been possible. Mr Somchai Mananasup, Director of DMCR, Songkhla Lake Center, and Dr Nantarika Chansue, Associate Professor at Chulalongkorn University.

irrawaddy dolphin team

With that, we ended our 5-day trip. But this is just the beginning. We hope to embark on the next phase of this on-going project in the very near future. Stay tuned to this blog for the latest updates.

Follow the team on their trip

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