Hong Kong (CNN)A near constant wind buffets the top deck of Boat 36826 as it patrols the seas north of Hong Kong’s largest island, Lantau.
Down a steep staircase in the boat’s main cabin, her boss Taison Chang sorts through the supplies piled on seats and a wide, curved table — maps and charts, a GPS tracker, snacks, waterproofs, two-expensive cameras with long lenses, and several bottles of suncream in defiance of the dreary skies overhead.
Next to Lau, holding a walkie-talkie and shivering in a blue t-shirt, Viena Mak writes on a clipboard as her co-worker says: “no sighting.”
It’s a phrase the trio are becoming depressingly used to. They work for the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society (HKDCS), which sends researchers out almost every day, no matter the weather, to search the city’s waters for an ever-shrinking population of dolphins.
Their relentless work matters, not just to keep a few individual animals alive, but as a test of whether Hong Kongers can have more of a say in how their city progresses, take a step back from the mega projects and uninhibited development that have characterized Hong Kong for decades, and act to preserve what made it special in the first place.
I. Ancient ‘ruddy’ residents
On a day in July 1637, British explorer and trader Peter Mundy sat at anchor aboard the ship “Planter,” near what was then still the Portuguese colony of Macau.
Mundy — who would go on to help introduce tea to the UK, forever changing British drinking habits and imperial priorities — wrote in his diary, “the Porpoises here are as white as Milke, some of them Ruddy withall.”
It was one of the first recorded mentions of the Chinese white dolphin, but would go largely unnoticed until another European, Swedish missionary and naturalist Pehr Osbeck wrote of “snow-white dolphins (which) tumbled about the ship” and suggested a scientific name for them: “delphinus chinensis.”
Now officially the Sousa chinensis (to reflect their relation to the wider Sousa, or humpback dolphin, genus), the animals are more commonly known as pink dolphins due to their pink bubblegum-like coloring in adulthood.
Growing up to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) in length, with short, stubby snouts and small dorsal fins high up on their arched backs, pink dolphins have lived in the waters around Hong Kong for hundreds of years, as the human population grew from the low thousands in the 1600s to the millions today.
Throughout that time, pink dolphins — and to a lesser degree the finless porpoise, another local cetacean — were a common sight for Hong Kong fishermen, who regarded the animals as a catch-stealing nuisance at best, and an evil omen at worst.
Seeing pink dolphins leap out of the water was said to be a harbinger of storms; one old story has it that in 1941, fishermen off Yau Ma Tei saw a particularly large pod cresting three days before the Japanese Air Force began bombing the city.
While some saw dolphins as having an effect on human affairs, no one took much mind of what people might be doing to the dolphins until the 1990s, when scientists began sounding the alarm that population numbers were plummeting.
Today, there are an estimated 10,000 pink dolphins globally, with the largest population, around 1,200, in the Pearl River Delta region. HKDCS estimates 47 dolphins currently make the city’s waters their home.
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