Priceless and tickled pink

Hong Kong style ... dolphins as pink as fairy floss.
Hong Kong style ... dolphins as pink as fairy floss. Photo: Ken Fung

Tearing herself away from the boutiques, Julietta Jameson discovers rare beauty in the South China Sea.

Adamant that there is so much more to Hong Kong than shopping, our hostess at the new Novotel Hong Kong Nathan Road Kowloon hotel suggests we see the pink dolphins. Well, my suitcase is pretty chockers already, so why not?

Hong Kong does have amazing natural beauty, with lush green hills and phenomenal ocean outlooks. But there are several things that make me dubious about this dolphin suggestion. First, it's hard to get your head around animal safaris when you're right across the road from the night markets. The lure of retail in Hong Kong is intense and the Novotel Nathan Road is perfectly placed, in the heart of Kowloon and not far from my favourite retail precinct, Mongkok.

Second, Hong Kong Harbour is not the cleanest or most peaceful waterway. The suggestion that an endangered species could be alive and relatively well within its confines has me wondering if this is some kind of George Lucas-inspired, animatronic ruse. This is China, after all.

And anyway: pink plus dolphin equates to unicorn in my head. It sounds too fantastic.

But, I am assured, Hong Kong is the best place in the world to see the Indo-Pacific humpback species. So I board the bus to link up with a Hong Kong Dolphinwatch excursion into the South China Sea.

On the way to our departure point on Lantau Island, we are told no one knows exactly why the dolphins are pink rather than the usual grey we see off Australian shores. The Hong Kong dolphins are born grey, then turn pink. They live in fairly gloomy water with no predators, so pink is fine in their habitat.

Not so fine, the freeway-like boat traffic, the sewage and industrial run-off the dolphins must contend with.

We're told up to 150 dolphins live in Hong Kong's waters, or perhaps only 80. There were 150 two years ago but the mortality rate is huge. Their life expectancy has been halved from 40 years to 20 years due to fishing nets and insecticides as well as the aforementioned hazards. The mortality rate in calves is exceptionally high.

Pink dolphins inhabit the waters off the nearby Chinese cities of Zhuhai and Macau but their numbers are also dwindling.

The tour operator tells us we have a 97 per cent chance of seeing the critters. I'm already sure I'm in the three per cent. We board the boat a bit after 9.30am and chug out, parallel to the busy Hong Kong airport's main runway. These must be some noise-resistant dolphins, I think, as the aircraft blast above us.

Our party is sitting on the roof of our small excursion craft, in full lookout mode, but I am usually unlucky on such outings and don't have the heart to tell my mates that I'm probably jinxing their chances. We have cups of tea, eat biscuits and delight in being out on the water, seeing this amazing island from another perspective. Oh, well, if we don't see dolphins, we've had a nice morning on the water.

Then the amazing happens. Forty-five minutes into our trip, a pink beak appears in the water. It seems to do a 360, then out of the ocean flips a pink-as-fairy-floss dolphin!

Four of them are nearby. They frolic and loll and seem to be enjoying our company. The 360-degree manoeuvre, it soon becomes apparent, is their way of checking the coast is clear before they breach. They stick their heads up, check in all directions and bang! They're up, out and splashing down merrily. The proximity of fishing boats and anchored cargo ships suggests why they exercise caution.

It's just so clever. They are beautiful. For an hour we sit and watch them and they seem to watch us. The water is calm and sparkling and we are out beyond the floating rubbish of the inner harbour. With the lush green of Lantau in the background and these heavenly pink creatures playing innocently and joyfully, well, it's just remarkable that this is Hong Kong. The dolphins leave when the captain deliberately (I think) chases them away by revving the engines and moving the vessel towards them. We have had an hour after all and they are not showing any intention of going anywhere.

I feel so lucky and our guides onboard confirm this. Others may get only a glimpse of dolphins in a three-hour tour; we got a show.

As I disembark, one of the crew, who has discovered I am a journalist, grabs my arm and says: "Help us spread the word to protect them." And I'm heartened by the passion of the tour operators; that this is not just a money-making exercise but a business with the welfare of the animals at its core.

The writer was a guest of Novotel Nathan Road and Virgin Atlantic.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic flies daily to Hong Kong. Fares start at $825 return, including taxes and charges. See virgin-atlantic.com/en/au.

Staying there

Novotel Nathan Road, 348 Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Standard double rooms are from about $HK900 ($179) a night.

Phone +852 39658888, see accorhotels.com.

Cruising there

The Novotel Nathan Road's concierge will arrange your dolphin tour. Hong Kong Dolphinwatch tours leave from Kowloon on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. $HK360 for adults, $HK180 for children under 12. See www.hkdolphinwatch.com.

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