Where’s waddy?: Visiting the critically endangered dolphins of Negros Occidental

For the past seven years, marine biologist Mark de la Paz has been studying Irrawaddy dolphins off the coast of Negros Occidental. We join him on a trip to the mouth of the Bago River to get a glimpse of the critically endangered marine mammals

Only a few hundred Irrawaddy dolphins remain in South-East Asia

Only a few hundred Irrawaddy dolphins remain in South-East Asia

Kids stand by a mural by AG Saño

Kids stand by a mural by AG Saño

Fishermen construct tangaban or tidal nets near the mouth of Bago River

Fishermen construct tangaban or tidal nets near the mouth of Bago River

A waddy or lumba-lumba painted on a fishing boat

A waddy or lumba-lumba painted on a fishing boat

It was the middle of August, and after weeks of monsoon rain on Negros Island, the weather finally relented and gave way to a sunny day. The dark clouds dissipated, and one could see as far as the distant mountains of Panay Island across the Guimaras Strait. The sea was calm. “It’s a beautiful day,” marine biologist Mark de la Paz beamed, as our bangka (outrigger canoe) departed from the black-sand beach of Pulupandan, a municipality 25km south of Bacolod City. It was 7am.

Unlike most travelers who typically set out along the eastern coast of Negros on popular dolphin watching tours in the Tañon Strait — home to 14 species of whales and dolphins — we were about to sail along the island’s western coast to search for a rare cetacean: the Irrawaddy dolphin.

Mark has been studying the marine mammal for the past seven years. Back in 2010, as a student of Silliman University in Dumaguete City, he was part of the scientific survey that discovered the presence of this species in the waters between Negros and Guimaras islands. Now a professor at the University of St La Salle in his hometown of Bacolod City, Mark continues studying the area’s threatened Irrawaddy dolphin population — now numbered below 20 — with the help of his students, and lobbying for the conservation of the species.

After an hour of traveling northwards, we rounded Pulupandan’s point and reached the waters off the mouth of the Bago River, which borders Bago City. This is where the dolphins hunt for sapsap (ponyfish) and conger eels. Mark’s students, who have been monitoring the dolphins for their thesis, have had frequent sightings here in the past four months.

We suddenly saw a dark hump bobbing in the water. I gripped my DSLR camera, poised to photograph the creature in rapid-fire succession. But as our boat chugged closer, it turned out to be nothing more than a floating log. “This is weird. They’re usually here,” Mark said with a sigh. Barefoot on the bow, he squinted through a pair of binoculars, scanning the waters around us.

Despite the favorable weather, the dolphins eluded us — not only because there are so few of them left, but also because they are reserved by nature. “They’re not the showbiz type,” Mark said. These animals are shy compared to more acrobatic cousins like spinners and bottlenoses — the superstars of dolphin watching tours elsewhere — that bow-ride and leap out of the water, eager to entertain spectators. Irrawaddy dolphins usually prefer to mind their own business. Unlike other ocean-going species that thrive in clear, open waters, they prefer the murky habitat of rivers and estuaries, making them even harder to spot.

At risk for extinction

With around 6,000 left in the wild, the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) — or “waddy” as they are sometimes nicknamed — is considered one of the world’s most endangered dolphin species. Most of them can be found off the coast of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal, but the few hundred across South-East Asia face extinction. Outside of South Asia, small groups have been found across Indochina, Borneo and the Philippines, where they also prefer freshwater inland habitats in large river systems like Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, from which the species take its name. On a backpacking trip in 2013, I saw waddies for the first time at the Laos-Cambodia boundary of the Mekong River, where 12 remained. Three years later, they were declared “functionally extinct” in that area, after a scientific survey yielded only three dolphins.

In the Philippines, the total number of waddies is around 100, with sightings reported in only three localities. They were first documented in 1986 at Malampaya Sound in northern Palawan, then 27 years later in Negros. A group of 20 dolphins were sighted off Quezon in southern Palawan in 2013. The local fisherfolk of Pulupandan, however, have known them for generations, calling them lumba-lumba in the Hiligaynon tongue. “I remember seeing them out here since I was eight years old,” our 59-year-old boatman Joel Crispe tells me, recalling close encounters with the inquisitive creatures while swimming near tangaban or fence-like bamboo structures built to catch tiny shrimp in the shifting tides. “They weren’t afraid to approach people.”

These days, waddies have much to fear from our kind. Living in coastal areas makes them vulnerable to human activities. Like the subpopulations in other parts of the world, their numbers in Negros continue to dwindle. Since their documentation, there has been one stranding reported every year — usually a calf. Considering that a cow only gives birth to a single offspring every two to three years, this is troubling news. The subpopulation continues to be threatened by net entanglement, pollution from coastal communities and nearby distillery plants, boat collisions and the proposed construction of the Negros-Guimaras-Panay bridge expected to start next year. “If nothing is done,” Mark said, “they will disappear from these waters in the next two decades.”

Good signs

The olive-green waters of Bago-Pulupandan dazzled under the glaring sun. We’d been waiting for almost two hours when, out of the blue, two humps appeared right in front of us, catching us off guard. “They’re here!” I yelled, unable to contain my excitement. A pair of waddies finally appeared, swimming side by side. To our far right, closer to shore, four more dolphins emerged, their bodies silhouetted against the glimmer on the water. Mark instructed Joel to turn off the engine. Without the pounding noise, we could hear their gentle sloshing even from a distance, punctuated by the snuffing of their blowholes. It was the first time I’d heard the sound of wild dolphins moving through the water. They occasionally rolled on their sides, lifted their flippers as if to wave hello and dove, exposing their shapely tails.

As we observed the close-knit pod, a curious adult approached, emerging only five meters away from our boat. It briefly lifted its head above the surface, allowing me to get a split-second glimpse of its pinprick eyes and impish grin. Related to the orca or killer whale, waddies look strikingly different from the typical dolphin. Their snout-less faces give them an adorable countenance that would make them the perfect mascot for the nearby provincial capital, dubbed “The City of Smiles”.

While Bago City declared an Irrawaddy dolphin sanctuary off its coast last February, the municipality of Pulupandan — where waddies have been observed to spend most of their time — has yet to establish a protected area for them. Fortunately, the Negros Occidental Coastal Wetlands Conservation Area (NOCWCA), covering 110 kilometers of coastline along seven municipalities including Pulupandan, has been declared the country’s newest wetland of international importance, designated by the Ramsar Convention, an agreement among several nations that provides the framework for “the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”.

After more than three hours patrolling Bago-Pulupandan, we headed back to town. I couldn’t help but contemplate the fate of the Irrawaddy dolphins of Negros. Will they still be around when I return in a few years, or will they vanish forever, like the ones I saw in the Mekong?

When we stopped by Sitio Cavan, a fishing village at the mouth of the Bago River, we met two young fishermen hauling out the morning’s catch from their bangka. There was a blue smiling waddy painted on their boat’s bow. I took it as a good omen for the endangered waddies; a sign of the locals’ appreciation for their gentle neighbors. “We hope the lumba-lumba will stay,” one of the fishermen said. “If they’re here, it means our environment is healthy and bountiful.”

How to Get There

From Bacolod South Public Market (popularly known as Libertad), take a Pulupandan jeepney to the town (P25). Alternatively, one can board any southbound bus at Bacolod City South Terminal (P20), alight at Pulupandan crossing, and take a tricycle to the poblacion (P10). Travel time takes at least 45 minutes. Arrange Irrawaddy dolphin watching tours and homestay accommodations in advance through the municipal tourism office at tel: +63 917 900 0634.

Dos & Don’ts

Sustainable dolphin watching tours respect the animals and their habitat. Both tourists and boatmen should follow these guidelines when watching Irrawaddy and other dolphins in the wild.
• Stay at least 50 meters away from dolphins (unless they willingly approach the boat).
• Move away slowly if they show signs of disturbance.
• Refrain from swimming with, touching or feeding the dolphins.
• Never throw trash in the sea. Dispose of it properly upon returning to land.
• Encourage others to follow these practices.

Irrawaddy dolphin photo by Adam Wildlife / shutterstock.com

This story first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Smile magazine.

Written and Photographed

Edgar Alan Zeta Yap

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