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The Last of the Pink Dolphins

When Simon Holliday jumped into the water to swim from Hong Kong to Macau on 24 May 2014, he was feeling anything but ready. He certainly didn’t know this 5:30 am swim would break a world record; nor did he think it would attract an unlikely swarm of spectators.

Simon Holliday swims from Hong Kong to Macau for water conservation awareness (Credit: Credit: Ocean Recovery Alliance)

Simon Holliday swims from Hong Kong to Macau for water conservation awareness (Credit: Ocean Recovery Alliance)

About four hours into the 35km, 10:20:30 journey – part of the Clean Cross Swim to raise money for the Ocean Recovery Alliance’s anti-pollution initiative  – open-water swimmer Holliday was approaching the mouth of the Pearl River Delta when his support paddler, Shu Pu, started yelling. There were endangered pink dolphins everywhere, as if they had signed up to join the race.

“I have been in Hong Kong, paddling around the islands for seven years, and have never encountered a pink dolphin on my own,” Pu said.

Simon Holiday and Shu Pu paddle past a rare white dolphin (Credit: Credit: Anthony Kwan)

Simon Holiday and Shu Pu paddle past a rare white dolphin (Credit: Anthony Kwan)

It wasn’t just one or two dolphins either – there were about 25 to 30 following the crew and diving on every side. “They stuck with us for more than an hour and came really close, probably 3m from me, jumping and crossing in front of my canoe,” Pu added. “We actually exchanged looks at one point, kind of acknowledging each other.”

The crew encountered another group of Chinese white dolphins – which are often called pink dolphins for their rosy hue – as Holliday closed in on Macau, as if they were rooting for him to cross the finish line. “I didn’t actually know they were there until the crew told me,” Holliday said. “And then I was thinking, well the sun is out, the dolphins are following along, and I might just finish this thing. It was a really great omen.”

Pink dolphin sightings these days are unusual enough to begin with – and it is unheard of to see so many in one place at the same time. According to the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, the number of pink dolphins in Hong Kong waters plummeted from 158 in 2003 to 61 in 2014 – a 40% decline. Other small populations of Chinese white dolphins – some with a slight pink tint, others appearing grey ­­– found near river mouths in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, are also threatened.

The Chinese white dolphin is nicknamed the pink dolphin for its rosy hue (Credit: Credit: Chem7/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

The Chinese white dolphin is nicknamed the pink dolphin for its rosy hue (Credit: Chem7/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Between the ongoing construction of the 50km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge – which will be one of the longest bridges in the world upon completion at the end of 2016 – to the high-speed commercial ferries zipping back and forth to China every day, Hong Kong’s waters are teeming with physical threats and acoustic chaos. The latter is especially damaging because dolphins rely on sonar to navigate, communicate and find food. The government is also planning to build a third runway near the Hong Kong International Airport on Lantau Island, which is in a prime dolphin corridor. The project would involve 650 hectares of land reclamation, dramatically reducing the dolphins’ habitat and further restricting their movement.

Constant ferries contribute to Hong Kong’s water pollution (Credit: Credit: Philippe Lopez/Getty)

Constant ferries contribute to Hong Kong’s water pollution (Credit: Philippe Lopez/Getty)

“The situation has gotten a lot worse in the last decade. If development pressure keeps going at this rate, there is not much hope,” said Dr Samuel Hung, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, an NGO dedicated to tracking dolphins and researching mortality causes.

But bridge and land development is only one issue. The animals also face serious threats from pollution, which leads to diseases and premature deaths of dolphin calves. Due to ineffective waste management, Hong Kong’s waters are highly contaminated with plastics, fertilizers and heavy metals, something the Clean Cross Swim is trying to raise awareness of.

Construction continues on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge (Credit: Credit: Zhenghua Zhuhai China)

Construction continues on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge (Credit: Zhenghua Zhuhai China)

There are also issues with unregulated tour operators. Many fishermen in the village of Tai O, near one of the dolphins’ corridors, operate small dolphin-spotting operations out of their tiny motorboats. Though some guides take the necessary precautions, many do not follow the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department’s voluntary code of conduct – which warns against approaching the dolphins at high speed, crowding around them, suddenly changing course or coming between a mother and her calf.

The Tai O fishing village is known for operating unregulated dolphin tours (Credit: Credit: Ostill/iStock)

The Tai O fishing village is known for operating unregulated dolphin tours (Credit: Ostill/iStock)

To try to remedy the situation, the WWF-Hong Kong introduced a four-month-long Dolphin Watching Interpreter Pilot Programme in July, where interpreters sporting “Dolphins, I care!” shirts accompany travellers on tours with four small Tai O-based motorboat operators to explain the dire state of affairs.

For travellers, the only eco-tourism operator dedicated to the pink dolphins is Hong Kong DolphinWatch. Founded by Bill Leverett, the company’s mission is to raise awareness and funding for the blushing beauties.

“[Bill] looked at the best practices in eco-tourism – particularly whale and dolphin watching, around the world  – and tried to implement the same standards here,” said company spokesperson Janet Walker. “He thought that if you put a monetary value on the dolphins then maybe people would think they’re worth saving.”

Today, the operation runs three half-day trips a week, departing from Tung Chung on the northern side of Lantau Island, with anywhere between 10 and 50 people aboard its 20m-long ship. The tour explores the dolphins’ favourite corridors, coming surprisingly close to the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge where dozens of sledgehammer-like machines drive piles into the ocean floor.

The Hong Kong Dolphin Watch is the only sustainable tour company for dolphin sightings (Credit: Credit: Hong Kong Dolphin Watch)

The Hong Kong Dolphin Watch is the only sustainable tour company for dolphin sightings (Credit: Hong Kong Dolphin Watch)

The group trip has a 97% sighting rate, and the iconic dolphins delight travellers with their playful personalities and photogenic appearance. They typically surface in pods of two or three, sometimes for a split second, other times for a round of playful jumps, their bright cotton-candy hue a wonderful contrast to the deep green waters.

And not only is it a fun experience for travellers, but learning about the human encroachment that these dwindling dolphins are up against every day is one more step towards saving these beloved creatures.

A dolphin dives back into the water with a flash of its tail (Credit: Credit: Laurent Fievet/Getty)

A dolphin dives back into the water with a flash of its tail (Credit: Laurent Fievet/Getty)

You may not be able to swim alongside the pink dolphins quite like Simon Holliday did, but with continued efforts by activists to educate travellers and operators alike, the pink dolphins may very well be diving around Hong Kong waters for a little while longer.

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Best way to see Hong Kong this summer? From a 1,000-foot-long slide

Childhood memories have a habit of supersizing everything, making it seem like things have shrunk when we re-encounter them as adults.

However the opposite is about to happen in Hong Kong, where a humungous water slide bigger than anything you’ve likely experienced as a child is due to arrive in August.
“You’ve grown and the slide has too,” says Amy Gessel, spokeswoman for global urban water chute phenomenon Slide the City.
“Remember your first slide? We did too and decided to make it huge — three city blocks.”
The Utah-based company has already brought oversized water slides — some as long as 1,777 feet (542 meters) — to over a dozen other cities.

First harbor-side waterslide

In Hong Kong, a three-lane, 1,000-foot-long slide will be installed at the city’s infamous old Kai Tak Airport — now the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal — for three days.
The company says it encourages local partners to pick a location where participants can appreciate the city’s scenery.
In Hong Kong, Slide the City visitors will get to enjoy Kai Tak’s signature harbor view.
“Usually, cities elsewhere pick parks, grasslands and footbridges as event venues,” says Cherry Lee, spokesperson for Slide the City’s local partner.
“Because of the high density of Hong Kong, it isn’t easy to find a suitable venue like that.
“After taking safety, pedestrian flow as well as the view of Hong Kong into consideration, we think Kai Tak Cruise Terminal is a suitable venue since participants can enjoy Hong Kong’s famous view of the Victoria Harbor and it’s the first slide in Asia that offers a night view.”

Born from fond childhood memories

Founders T.R. Gourley, John Malfatto and David Wulf started Slide the City in 2013, inspired by their own childhood memories.
“My favorite slide was my first,” says Gourley. “I had just walked to the top of the slide and saw my dad getting ready to jump on his tube. Once he jumped on his tube, I hopped on his back and we slid the whole way down laughing like we were little kids.”
Since opening its first slide in Salt Lake City — the company founders’ hometown — Slide the City has set up temporary water chutes in destinations around the world.

How to slide like a pro

To ensure a smooth slide along the waterway, the Hong Kong team visited previous events in Japan and the United States to calculate the best slide gradient.
“The slide will be built on a platform so the participants will enjoy the excitement of the ride,” says Lee.
“Get a good run before you jump on the slide with your inner tube,” advises Gessel.
Inflatable tubes are required for a smooth and safe ride.
And, for once, selfie-sticks are also encouraged.
“Just don’t drop it when you’re speeding down the slide,” adds Gessel.
Slide the City Hong Kong, August 22-24, Kai Tak Cruise Terminal Baggage Hall and Outdoor Apron Area, tickets from HK$150 (single slider ticket) to HK$420 (night slider and unlimited day slider tickets)