Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Mekong River

Irrawaddy dolphins are quite a sight to behold. This “Vulnerable” species is found in coastal areas in South and South-east Asia. The Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins, which are critically endangered inhabit only 190kms of the Mekong between Cambodia and Laos. It is estimated that between 78 to 91 individuals exist.

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Kampi, is a small province in Kratie that has a boat ride to spot the Irawaddy dolphins. We visited Kampi two times, and were two time lucky. In the first 10 minutes of both the boat rides, we went to an area of the vast Mekong where 4-5 dolphins had gathered.

Irrawaddy dolphins are known for their bulging forehead and short beak with a permanent smile. They jumped and dived playfully near us, and you could hear them breathing from the boat. I felt so calm, serene and one with the dolphins.

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So what is the threat these beautiful creatures are facing? Well, they may seem calm and relaxed but live a difficult life. The Irrawaddy dolphins are mainly threatened by bycatch fishing methods. During the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, many of the dolphins, which were once bountiful, were killed for food and oil. Pollution in the river by building of damns and motorboats also threatens this species, and many others that live in the river.

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Motor boats used for dolphin watching

The dolphins are recognisable by their fins. They eat mainly bony fish, but have also been observed eating crustaceans, fish eggs and cephalopods. It is quite interesting and also, appropriate that the Irrawaddy dolphins are closely related to orcas, or killing whales. The first picture shows the dolphin’s blowhole that it uses to breathe.

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These dolphins are vital for the Mekong River and the people who live there. It is essential for the maintaining a healthy number of fish and is also considered a sacred animal for the Khmer and Laos locals, who earn their money through tourism and dolphin watching tours. Our boatman, who was excellent- told us how much he depends on these creatures. He has been working as a boatman for 20 years and has seen the changes in numbers of dolphins over the years. He said the dolphins move further down to Laos as well as Stung Treng, a flooded forest further down Kratie.

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Our boatman

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Here is a video my mother compiled of our dolphin watching experience. There are a few seconds of me with my camera in action! So here’s a little behind the scenes look:

Many organizations such as WWF conduct many researches and projects where they connect and educate local people to the dolphins and highlight their importance. These dolphins must not just be preserved for tourists like us to watch and see- but must stay and thrive in the great Mekong River like it always has.

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