It was the middle of August, and after weeks of monsoon rains at Negros Island, the weather finally relented and gave way to a sunny day. The dark clouds dissipated, and one could see as far as the distant mountains of Panay Island across the Guimaras Strait. The sea was calm. “It’s a beautiful day,” marine biologist Mark de la Paz beamed, as our bangka (outrigger canoe) departed past 7 AM from the black-sand beach of Pulupandan — a municipality 25km south of Bacolod City.
Unlike most travelers who typically set out along the eastern coast of Negros on popular dolphin watching tours in Tañon Strait, which is home to 14 species of whales and dolphins, we were about to sail along the island’s western coast to search for a rare cetacean: the Irrawaddy dolphin. Mark has been studying the marine mammal for the past seven years.
Back in 2010, as a student of Silliman University in Dumaguete City, Mark joined the scientific survey that discovered the presence of this species in the waters between Negros and Guimaras islands. Now a professor at the University of St. La Salle in his hometown of Bacolod City, he continues studying the area’s threatened Irrawaddy dolphin population — which is now below 20 — with the help of his students, and lobbying for the conservation of the species.
After an hour, we rounded Pulupandan’s point and finally reached the waters directly off the mouth of the Bago River, which borders Bago City. This is where the dolphins hunt for sapsap (ponyfish) and conger eels. Mark’s students have been frequently sighting them here in the past four months.
Suddenly, we eyed a dark hump bobbing on the water. I gripped my DSLR camera firmly, poised to photograph the creature in rapid-fire succession. As our boat chugged closer, however, our sighting turned out to be nothing more than a floating log. “This is weird. They’re usually here,” Mark said with a sigh. He squinted through a pair of binoculars as he stood barefoot on the bow, and scanned the waters around us.
Despite the favorable weather, the dolphins eluded us — not only because there are so few of them left, but also because they are reserved by nature. “They’re not the showbiz type,” Mark said. These animals are shy compared to their acrobatic cousins like spinners and bottlenoses — the superstars of dolphin watching tours elsewhere — that bow-ride and leap out of the water, eager to entertain spectators. Irrawaddy dolphins usually mind their own business. And, unlike other ocean-going species that thrive in clear, open waters, they prefer the murky habitat of rivers and estuaries, making them even harder to spot.
At risk for extinction
With around 6,000 left in the wild, the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) — or “waddy” as they are sometimes nicknamed — is considered one of the world’s most endangered dolphin species. Most of them thrive off the coast of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal, but the few hundred found across Southeast Asia face extinction. Outside of South Asia, small groups are also found across Indochina, Borneo and the Philippines, where they also thrive in freshwater habitats far inland in large river systems like Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River from which the species takes its name. On a backpacking trip in 2013, I saw waddies for the first time at the Laos-Cambodia boundary of the Mekong River, where 12 of them remained. Sadly, they were declared “functionally extinct” in the area three years later, after a scientific survey yielded only three dolphins.
In the Philippines, the total number of waddies is around 100, reported from only three localities. They were first documented in 1986 at Malampaya Sound in northern Palawan, then 27 years later, in Negros. A group of 20 dolphins were sighted off Quezon in southern Palawan in 2013. The local fisherfolk of Pulupandan, however, have known them for generations, calling them lumba-lumba in the Hiligaynon tongue. “I remember seeing them out here since I was eight years old,” our 59-year-old boatman Joel Crispe tells me, recalling close encounters with the inquisitive creature while swimming near tangaban or fence-like bamboo structures built to catch tiny shrimp in the shifting tides. “They weren’t afraid to approach people.”
These days, the waddies have much to fear from our kind. Living along coastal areas make them vulnerable to human activities. Like the subpopulations in other parts of the world, their numbers in Negros continue to dwindle. Since their documentation, there has been one stranding reported every year — usually a calf. This is troubling news considering that a cow gives birth to a single offspring every two to three years. The subpopulation continues to be threatened by net entanglement, boat collision, pollution from coastal communities and nearby distillery plants, and the proposed construction of the Negros-Guimaras-Panay bridge expected to start next year. “If nothing will be done,” Mark said, “they will disappear from these waters in the next two decades.”
The olive-green waters of Bago-Pulupandan dazzled under the glaring sun. We’ve been waiting for almost two hours, when out of the blue, two humps appeared right in front of us, and caught us off guard. “They’re here!” I yelled, unable to contain my excitement. A pair of waddies finally appeared, swimming side by side. Then to our far right, closer to shore, four more dolphins emerged, their bodies silhouetted by the glimmer on the water. Mark instructed the boatman to turn off the engine, and without the pounding noise, we could hear the gentle sloshing even from a distance, punctuated by the snuffing out of air from their blowholes. It was the first time I heard the sound of wild dolphins moving through the water. Occasionally, the waddies rolled on their sides, lifted their flippers as if to wave hello, and dove down to expose their shapely tails.
As we observed the close-knit pod, a curious adult approached, emerging only five meters away from our boat. It briefly lifted its head above the surface, which allowed me to get a split-second glimpse of its pinprick eyes and impish grin. Related to the orca or killer whale, waddies look strikingly different from the typical dolphin. Their snout-less faces give them an adorable countenance that would make them the perfect mascot for the nearby provincial capital, dubbed the “City of Smiles”.
While Bago City has declared an Irrawaddy dolphin sanctuary off its coast last February, the municipality of Pulupandan — where waddies have been observed to spend most of their time — has yet to establish a marine protected area for them. On the upside, the Negros Occidental Coastal Wetlands Conservation Area (NOCWCA), covering 110 kilometers of coastline along seven municipalities including Pulupandan, has been declared the country’s newest Ramsar Site or a wetland of international importance designated by the Ramsar Convention. The Ramsar Convention is an agreement among several nations that provide the framework for “the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”.
After more than three hours of patrolling the Bago-Pulupandan coastline, monitoring the same pod of six dolphins, we started to head back to town. I couldn’t help but contemplate on the fate of the Irrawaddy dolphins of Negros. Will they still be around when I return in a few years, or will they vanish forever like the ones I saw in the Mekong?
When we stopped by Sitio Cavan, a fishing village at the mouth of the Bago River, we met two young fishermen hauling out the morning’s catch from their bangka. There was a blue smiling waddy painted on their boat’s bow. I took it as a good omen for the waddies. “We hope the lumba-lumba will stay,” one of the fishermen said. “If they’re here, it means our environment is healthy and bountiful.”
Dos & Don’ts
Sustainable dolphin watching tours respect the animals and their habitat. Both tourists and boatmen should follow these guidelines when watching Irrawaddy and other dolphins in the wild:
- Stay at least 50 meters away from dolphins (unless they willingly approach the boat).
- Move away slowly if they show signs of disturbance.
- Refrain from swimming with, touching or feeding them.
- Never throw away trash in the sea. Dispose of them properly upon returning to land.
- Teach and encourage others to follow these practices
How to Get There
From Bacolod South Public Market (popularly known as Libertad), take a Pulupandan jeepney to the town (P25). Alternatively, one can board any southbound bus at Bacolod City South Terminal (P20), alight at Pulupandan crossing, and take a tricycle to the poblacion (P10). Travel time takes at least 45 minutes. Arrange Irrawaddy dolphin watching tours and homestay accommodations in advance through the municipal tourism office at tel: +63 917 900 0634.