In late 2023, a small team equipped with cameras and aerial drones embarked on a boat trip to witness the revered pink dolphins in the Prek Tnaot protected area. This lively activity was led by Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC), alongside Kampot provincial fishery officials and community members.

A playful group of pink dolphins, also known as Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (Sousa chinensis), inhabiting the coastal waters of the eastern Indian and western Pacific Oceans, delighted onlookers by leaping, chasing and playfully scattering fish – a vibrant spectacle beautifully captured in photos and videos by the conservation group.

Sar Sorin, director of the Fisheries Administration’s (FiA) Kampot provincial cantonment, noted that a survey on dolphins in the province began in 2022 and extended until the end of 2023 to gather statistics on the species.

However, the results have not been determined yet. Consequently, this year, the working group and partner organisations are conducting additional research to ascertain the dolphin population.

He said the dolphins have long been residents of the sea in Kampot province. Fishermen have been spotting these dolphins for years, but specific statistics were lacking until 2022 when MCC began to gather data on their numbers.

Sorin said that in the initial survey up to December 2023, the team observed over 45 pink dolphins and up to 40 Irrawaddy dolphins in the Trapeang Ropov, Changhaon and Prek Tnaot community fisheries.

“The dolphins inhabit these areas primarily due to the clean water, abundant food and effective protection from [FiA’s] patrols. Additionally, concrete boxes have been placed as artificial habitats in these regions,” he said.

A graceful pink dolphin swims in the coastal waters off the Kingdom’s Kampot province in December 2023. Kampot agriculture department

At the same time, he encourages authorities and fishermen to boost protection in the area. If accidental capture or ensnarement occurs, people are to report and release the mammals back into their natural habitat.

Echoes of ocean guardians

“This year, in collaboration with MCC, we aim to monitor and install sonar sensors to determine the number of dolphin pods in the Kampot beach area precisely,” Sorin explains.

Preserving these dolphins not only safeguards one of the world’s rarest species, listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, but also attracts more nature enthusiasts to explore Kampot province.

He said dolphins frequently surface when the water is calm, typically from November to March, either before sunrise or between noon and 3pm.

Speaking to reporters during a dolphin survey in Prek Tnaot on December 22 last year, Phion Sopheanie, a marine mammal researcher at MCC, shared that in a series of follow-up research missions, the group observed several pods, each consisting of about eight to 15 dolphins.

She highlighted that researchers spotted dolphins swimming in groups with their babies. Drone surveys revealed many new dolphin calves, indicating a growth in their population. Pink dolphins are exclusive to Kampot and Koh Kong provinces, with a total estimated between 100 and 200.

Sopheanie said that, to ensure their longevity and growth, MCC has partnered with the local fishery community to actively maintain and record dolphin numbers.

“Our marine mammal conservation project collaborates with local communities, including fishermen. We give them a calendar to record every time they spot dolphins,” she explained.

A graceful pink dolphin swims in the coastal waters off the Kingdom’s Kampot province in December 2023. Kampot agriculture department

The MCC has implemented various methods to support the well-being and growth of dolphins, including placing concrete boxes in the sea. These boxes provide a safe space for dolphins to breed and help reduce illegal and accidental capture.

Naov Yeh, 47, head of the Changhaon fishery community, shares that the community actively cares for pink dolphins. They contribute by creating shelters placed in the dolphins’ habitat and conducting regular patrols.

Nature’s gifts unveiled

Yeh spotlights that the presence of dolphins benefits the local community, offering an opportunity to generate extra income by providing boat tours to nature-loving visitors.

“National and international visitors have the opportunity to witness dolphins in our community. Dolphins are not only present in Prek Tnaot but also in our community. Visitors to the region can also appreciate the beautiful landscape of mangroves and many species of birds,” she says.

Likewise, Ouk Sovannarith, 52, head of the Prek Tnaot fishery community, shares that his community actively participates in dolphin care to both attract visitors and preserve precious wildlife.

He says that visitors to his community can not only spot dolphins but also experience corals, sea grass, fishing and picturesque landscapes.

“We have two boats to transport visitors to the community, which is 3km wide and 3km long. They can explore the area at their own pace. We charge $15 for a boat ride to see sea grass, coral and dolphins,” he says.

A graceful pink dolphin swims in the coastal waters off the Kingdom’s Kampot province in December 2023. Kampot agriculture department

Seng Bunna, director of the FiA’s Koh Kong provincial cantonment, say that there aren’t many activities showcasing pink dolphins to visitors in the province. Around Mondul Seima district’s Peam Krasop commune, there are approximately 30 pink dolphins.

He says that the active role of professional officers in conservation efforts is to educating fishermen to understand and actively participate in species protection. They are also instructed to release dolphins if they happen to get caught in their fishing nets.

On November 1, 2023, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries reported that between October 25 and 27, the marine mammal research team from MCC observed and identified over 50 dolphins, including both Irrawaddy and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. 

“The existence of these dolphins highlights the success of the collaborative efforts of the Cambodian government, partner organisations and relevant institutions in preserving these rare and precious species for Cambodia and the world,” the ministry said.