Taiwan’s humpback dolphins

In 2002, Sousa chinensis won official recognition as a resident of Taiwan, leaping out of relative obscurity and into the highest category of endangered species. Despite its proximity to the heaving west coast human population, its presence had gone unnoticed by most local people, and the stretch of coastal waters in which it swims, between the Mailiao and Changpin Industrial Parks, had never before been thoroughly surveyed for cetaceans.

The home of the Sousa has changed immensely in recent decades from that in which its ancestors thrived: from the coal-fired power station at the mouth of the Dadu River, an army of pylons marches out across the plain and charges up the hill to fuel the campaign to keep Taiwan lit up, cooled down and churning out the goods; smoke stacks punctuate the flat landscape at Mailiao, nurturing the yellowish haze that floats lazily northward on the light breeze; human and industrial waste flow untreated into the sea, under the surface of which plump, farmed oysters swell on a maze of wires; and out there on the not-so-distant horizon, fishing boats trawl unchallenged far closer to shore than written law permits.

But it is not in the nature of these dolphins to migrate, even despite these increasingly unpleasant circumstances. And besides, the foul effluent that swirls in the waves even provides them, via their undiscerning prey, with nutrients in these increasingly barren hunting grounds.

“They’re pink? Is that because of the pollution?” is a common question.

No, they are simply pink, with some dark grey spots left over from infancy. From the cement shoreline, the bright humpbacks of adults can be seen arching slowly and curving smoothly back under the surface, once, twice, and then deep down to look for food. Mothers are accompanied by their smaller, darker calves, with whom they will maintain a strong bond for three or four years.

“They sometimes come much closer to land,” says a fisherman on the pier by the power station. “In fact, they used to come all the way down this channel here – until it was blocked off with this cement wall.”

One little obstruction – it surely won’t make that much difference. But what about all the other areas along this stretch of coastline that man is ‘reclaiming’ from corners of the ocean that only he believes ever belonged to him? In some places at Mailiao, where dolphin sightings were marked on the map only two years ago, there are now no longer waves, only the flat, characterless plains that will soon serve as the grazing grounds of a steel plant and an oil refinery.

There is plenty more of this to come, along with the new factories, desalinization plants and wind turbines, and as far as the developers are concerned it would be preferable not to introduce these hundred or so likely victims into the environmental impact assessments and the consciousness of people who might care. But thanks to those who took the time to look, others at least now have a chance to start watching, and thinking.

This article first appeared in Taiwanease magazine in September 2006