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Sea of Hope: Hongkongers set sail for marine conservation

Setting sail from office life, Sarah Yip and Rex Law have devoted their time to researching Hong Kong’s endangered Chinese white dolphins.

Over the past two years, Sarah Yip and her fiancé Rex Law have encountered many alarming situations in the seas surrounding Hong Kong during their marine conservation work.

They’ve discovered piles of waste on remote beaches and marine wildlife tangled up in ghost nets, as well as toxic chemicals flowing into the ocean… But saddest of all was the sight of a group of Chinese white dolphins trying to revive a dead calf.

One of the most troubling sightings happened on an afternoon in May 2020, during a dolphin-watching field trip they conducted on their junk boat, ‘Floatudio’. While patrolling the waters west of Hong Kong territory, the couple noticed an irregular ring of waves on the water’s surface. 

“Six adult Chinese white dolphins were encircling the lifeless body of a baby dolphin,” recalls Yip. “They kept lifting the dead body up so that it wouldn’t sink into the sea… “It’s rare to see a baby dolphin in the water of Hong Kong. That’s why it’s especially sad to find one [like this].”

Although they were not able to identify the reason for its death, Yip worries that tragedies like this will become increasingly common. “Hong Kong’s polluted waters have become difficult for marine mammals to survive in,” she says.  “People need to know about their suffering so that they will have a stronger will to protect them.”

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A group of Chinese white dolphins in the southern waters of Hong Kong. Credit: Ben Marans

Marine conservation: From the office to the ocean

The mascot of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover, the Chinese white dolphin is listed as a “Grade 1 National Key Protected Species” in mainland China. A 2019 government report indicates that the number of Chinese white dolphins living in the Hong Kong water fell to a “historic low” population of just 32. 

Meanwhile, a 2020 report conducted by wildlife research program Hong Kong Cetacean Research Project cited that newborns and young calves comprised just 2.5 per cent of the total Chinese white dolphin population sighted in Hong Kong, compared to 7.9 per cent in 2003. The low birth rate may eventually lead to regional extinction as there are not enough new dolphins to sustain the population, says the report. 

Six adult Chinese white dolphins were encircling the lifeless body of a baby dolphin.

Sarah Yip

In addition, these dolphins face a growing number of threats in Hong Kong’s waters. For starters, marine construction projects, high-speed ferries between Hong Kong and Macao, marine trash and discarded fishing nets can cause fatal injuries and habitat loss. What’s more, pollutants from factories and marine construction projects can lead to serious health problems and cause the death of dolphin calves.  

But the animals’ plight hasn’t gone unnoticed. Scientists are working hard to provide data and statistics to communicate the dire situations – and many everyday people are stepping up to help this fragile species. 

[Read more: Time is running out for these 5 endangered species in Asia]

Yip and Law are among the volunteers. The couple, both of whom are 34 years old, led an urban lifestyle working in Central for about 10 years. Law was an IT specialist and Yip worked as the manager of an online hotel booking platform. But they have always retained a fondness for nature, especially Law, who was born in a fisherman family in Cheung Chau, an island southwest of Hong Kong Island.

“Because of my background, I always wanted to experience life on the ocean. I also wanted to change the way people treat the ocean, as I grew up seeing fishermen throwing rubbish into the water randomly,” he says.

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Sarah Yip and Rex Law traded in corporate jobs to run marine conservation initiatives in Hong Kong waters. Credit: Ben Marans

In 2015, the couple quit their jobs and spent a year traveling around the world. When they returned to Hong Kong in 2016, they had the opportunity to purchase a boat from the relative of a friend. With their boat as an office, they started offering recreational boat tours and squid fishing trips. 

Following a beach cleanup event on Cheung Chau island organised by environmental preservation NGO World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong (WWF-HK), the couple turned their focus to conservation purposes in 2018. 

“The staff from WWF-HK’s ocean department told us about its Blue Ocean Incubator programme, which supports local communities and raises awareness about marine conservation,” she says. “Of course, we were very happy about the opportunity because this allowed us to give back to the environment and sustain our operation at the same time.”

Touring the ocean with a new purpose

With funding and support of WWF-HK, Law and Yip started offering eco-boat tours around Cheung Chau island. On these boat outings, which are usually joined by parents and children, they explain how the fishing industry impacts the marine ecosystem and what people can do in their daily life to protect the ocean and marine life.

“We want to help increase awareness on marine conservation among the younger generation so that they can influence the older generation in their families,” says Law. 

In 2019, Law and Yip founded a non profit organisation called Eco Cheung Chau. Since then, they have worked with various schools, such as Hong Kong University, and NGOs, like Ocean Asia, to organise visits to remote islands and clear away abandoned fishing nets and marine debris on remote beaches.  

[Read more: Hong Kong’s animal shelters overwhelmed during Covid-19]

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Dr. Lindsay Porter briefs the volunteer researchers before a data collection trip. Credit: Ben Marans

In August 2019, Dr Lindsay Porter, a sea mammal biologist from St Andrew University in the UK, invited the couple to conduct research on the construction of Three Runway System of Hong Kong International Airport and its impact on the habitat of Chinese white dolphins in Hong Kong. As volunteer researchers, the couple says it was “the most meaningful experience ever”.

As part of Dr Porter’s research team, the couple started exploring the waters around Lantau Island once a week to survey the night-time habitats of the Chinese white dolphin and the finless porpoise (an aquatic marine mammal that looks similar to dolphins), as well as to collect acoustic data from the marine mammals. 

We should learn how to coexist with other species. This is an issue everywhere in the world.

Rex Law

The study is still in progress, but Yip believes that it will provide concrete evidence on how large-scale construction projects impact the survival of the precious animals once they finish researching. 

The couple is particularly concerned about the Lantau Tomorrow Vision project, which aims to reclaim 1,700 hectares off the east coast of Lantau Island. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2025.

“We have conducted field trips with concerned lawmakers and found that dolphins and porpoises are still active in this area. Once construction starts, it will definitely drive these animals away, or worse, kill them,” says Yip.

“These animals have been around a lot longer than us [humans], but we drove them away for our convenience. This is very selfish” Law adds. “We should learn how to coexist with other species. This is an issue everywhere in the world.”

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Sarah Yip shows off some of the educational materials they use to teach children about our impact on marine life. Credit: Ben Marans

How to Help

Many people don’t realise it, but our daily choice can actually lead to marine waste and habitat destruction. Follow these tips to minimise your impact on our oceans.  

DO

– Use enzymatic detergent made with natural fruit peels, which are free of chemicals that could harm the ocean.

– Use reusable plastic products to reduce the volume of plastic debris that ends up in the ocean.

– Urge the government to reroute the high-speed ferries between Hong Kong and Macao away from Chinese white dolphin habitats.

DON’T

– Use shampoo and shower gels with microbeads (also known as microplastics or solid plastic particles), which degrade marine habitats.

– Use a sunscreen that contains chemical ingredients, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, which can kill coral and damage coral reefs 

– Leave behind any litter or garbage at the beach, as it could eventually end up in the water and seriously harm marine life.