This city of ours has plenty going for it – low crime, world-class dining and excellent public transport all contribute to making Hong Kong a great place to live. And while we all know that Mother Nature is just on the doorstep in the form of beautiful hikes and beaches, we tend to think of Hong Kong’s wildlife as consisting of a handful of buffalo, some thieving monkeys and the population of Lan Kwai Fong on a Friday night.
But there’s more to our native wildlife than drunken 4am trips to Tsui Wah. Hong Kong is home to a unique, and sadly now endangered, species of dolphin only found in a specific area off the coast of Lantau. The confusingly named Chinese White Dolphin actually starts its life grey, before gradually transitioning to a pale pink colour, making for an amazing sight and – if you’re quick off the mark – some pretty awesome photos too.
Our party for the day consisted of: two hard-to-please four-year-olds, two mums in need of coffee and a contained space for said four-year-olds and two grandparents, visiting from Europe for the umpteenth time and looking to experience something a little more original than yet another trip up The Peak.
We met up with our guide and fellow dolphin watchers for the day at the rather unremarkable Tung Chung New Development Pier, about ten minutes’ walk or five minutes’ cab ride from Tung Chung MTR station. If you’re coming from the Island, the trip fee includes return bus transport from Tsim Sha Tsui which is probably an easier option for most people.
Our party of about twenty or so boarded the DolphinWatch boat, a comfortable modern junk with toilets, partially covered upstairs deck and – HALLELUJA! – coffee, and made ourselves comfortable as we cruised out of the harbour, up past the airport and out to sea. As we sailed out, our lovely guide for the day, Ho Tak-ching came over to brief us on what we could expect on our trip, handing the kids some fun and informative booklets as well as dolphin postcards (now taking pride of place on the bedroom shelf).
A leisurely forty minutes later, we were out in open waters and almost immediately sighted a small pod of dolphins heading our way, drawing a collective excited “oooh!” from everyone on board, old and young. Master T-T and his buddy were positively bouncing up and down with excitement and had to be strongly encouraged to stop squealing for fear of scaring the poor creatures away and incurring the wrath of our fellow tour-goers.
And for the next hour or so, we experienced total dolphin-a-rama, with almost constant sightings of what turned out to be around six or seven adults, plus a young calf with its mother (all together now, “aww!”). It was absolutely magical to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat and they seemed completely unfazed by our presence, diving and playing quite happily.
Sadly we weren’t the only ones who had come to catch a glimpse of the dolphins that day. The small tourist sampans that offer cheap dolphin watching tours from Tai O are a huge problem – we witnessed small boats chasing the pod at speed, travelling dangerously close and risking injuring these beautiful creatures with their outboard motors.
Another huge threat for the dolphin population is the city’s continued development. The planned third runway at Hong Kong International Airport and construction of the vast new Zhuhai-Macau-Hong Kong bridge are slowly but surely decimating the dolphins’ home, driving them away from their natural habitat and into the path of the high-speed Macau ferries in the busy Lantau shipping channel. Pollution is also a big issue, with a few members of the pod exhibiting visible injuries that Tak-ching explained were from ropes and fishing nets cast adrift and we were all pretty shocked to see just how much plastic was floating on the surface of the sea around us.
But it’s not all bad news. Hong Kong DolphinWatch works hard to promote a message of conservation and to raise awareness of the issues facing the dwindling dolphin population, sharing sighting data with researchers and collaborating with local eco-groups. They also work with local schools to educate the next generation about the importance of protecting their indigenous wildlife.
And our next generation were just as impressed as the adults. Over the next few days we’ve had plenty of discussions about the dolphins, why you should always put your rubbish in the bin and never throw anything into the sea, further reinforced by the great environmental exhibition at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum and which Octonaut he’s going to be when he grows up (current vote: Kwaazi). The trip struck the perfect balance between educational and just straight up exciting for our boys… and the large plate of chocolate chip cookies laid on probably helped a bit too.
If you’re keen to get out of the city and experience something different with the kids, I can’t recommend a Hong Kong DolphinWatch trip highly enough. Just make sure you do it soon, while these beautiful creatures still exist.
Booking: Dolphin-spotting tours run throughout the year on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Trips last for around 4-5 hours and if you’re unlucky enough not to see a dolphin, you can join the next available tour for free (but with a 97% sighting rating, you’re unlikely to need that guarantee)! It’s also possible to charter a private dolphin-watching tour, with boats that can accommodate up to 120 people, offering a fun and family-friendly alternative to a boozy junk trip! Advance booking and payment is required. Email email@example.com or call 2984 1414 to book your spot.
Costs: HK$420 per adult; HK$210 for kids from 3 to 11 years; HK$50 for under-threes.
Please note that we happily paid for this trip ourselves.