Mekong River Journey

A Dolphin's Tale

"The day we saw the dolphins they leaped and frolicked in front of our boat and for the moment it was easy to forget the challenges they face."

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By Jeff Opperman/The Nature Conservancy

I couldn’t believe that Gordon’s cell phone worked.

We were traveling for four days with Gordon Congdon, freshwater conservation specialist for WWF-Cambodia, and his wife, Linda. Gordon had arranged an amazing trip for our family through northern Cambodia, perhaps the most remote and wild part of the lower Mekong River. We traveled in long, narrow boats and stayed in small riverside villages.

Here the river splintered in multiple channels that threaded their way through a fantasy world of dunes and forested islands. Many of the trees were bent, all in the same direction, as if blown by a consistent, gale-force wind. The trees are submerged for months each year and the strong, sustained current of the Mekong leaves its imprint on the eerie forest.

Gordon, who was in another boat, shouted and pointed at a sand bar, and both boats veered to the right and beached their noses on the sand.

“Look, down the sand bar, you’ve got a chance to see two extremely rare birds right next to each other.” There was a Mekong Wagtail, a diminutive little bird easily identified by the fact that it, well, wags its tail all the time. A few yards away stood a River Tern. This island supported most of the nests of the tern along the Mekong. Last year there were twenty six.

A man walked up and offered us some watermelon. Gordon told us that he was a guardian on the island, hired by WWF to watch over the nesting area. Elsewhere on the Mekong the terns’ nests—always constructed on sand bars—are disturbed by kids, dogs, buffalo, and activity that concentrates on the edge between land and water.

Gordon’s cell phone rang and he sorted out some problem with an upcoming training workshop while my kids and I played “sharks and minnows” in the shallow water. One of the island’s guardians, an older woman, stood on the beach shouting a warning every time one of the kids got slightly close to the main current. I swam into the “danger zone” where she was pointing and felt just a gentle nudging from the water but still directed the kids to stay closer to the sand bar, in part to relieve the woman’s stress.

The day before we’d seen something I’ve been waiting years to see. Though for a decade I’ve used the Mekong as the best example of how people depend on a healthy river—with tens of millions of people deriving their primary protein from the river’s fish harvests—reading about the Mekong’s freshwater dolphin captivated me on a different level. We saw a group of six and learned that only about 85 Irrawaddy dolphins remain in the Mekong River.

A few years back, the kids expected me to tell them a bedtime story each night and their standards were high: the story had to be original and so I often struggled to find new plots and characters. Then I read some of the folklore that surrounds the Mekong dolphin and from that I cobbled together a long-running story about a girl who lives along the Mekong and rescues a dolphin tangled in a net. The dolphin can change into a boy at night and he takes the girl to a jungle-covered island where a small band of dolphin people live. The labyrinthine landscape we now traveled looked remarkably like the mysterious world I had tried to describe for my kids.

Indeed, nets are the main problem for dolphins. The dolphins can get tangled within gill nets, which float below the surface and sweep large portions of the river, and if they can’t pull themselves free they’ll drown. Gordon and WWF were working with fishermen over long stretches of the Mekong to transition away from using gill nets. Because gill nets are among the most efficient ways to catch fish, restrictions on gill net use pose hardships for fishermen. WWF is working with the fishermen to diversify their sources of food and income.

“It’s tough,” said Gordon, “these other options for fisherman have to be real, they can’t just be window dressing.”

The day we saw the dolphins they leaped and frolicked in front of our boat and for the moment it was easy to forget the challenges they face.

On the final morning of our time with Gordon, his cell phone rang again. He looked at us and said, “There’s a new batch of giant soft-shelled turtle hatchlings. We have a chance to see them and the kids can release some into the river. It means a few extra hours in the boat. Are you OK with that?”

We were more than OK with that.

In 2007, a survey team from Conservation International and WWF discovered a small population of Cantor’s Giant Softshell turtle, previously thought to be extinct in the Mekong. CI launched a program that paid people for finding turtle nests, successfully hatching the eggs, and then releasing the hatchlings into the river. Without this program the nests are nearly always found by people and the eggs are collected for food.

We found the hatchlings nestled within sandy water in a mixing bowl. They were tiny and impossibly cute. With their mottled brown coloring and round, soft bodies—thicker in the middle and tapering toward the edges—they looked like a batch of “silver dollar” pancakes.

The kids picked two, gave them names (Stone and Lucky), and we took a boat out to the island in the middle of the river where the eggs had been laid 55 days ago. Lucky took some encouragement, but he eventually crawled into the river and then promptly buried himself in the sand, with just his eyes showing. Every few minutes he stretched his long neck up and took a gulp of air. In contrast, Stone sprinted like a turtle version of Usain Bolt into the water and he, too, promptly buried himself. Watch a video of our kids releasing the turtle hatchlings.

This will be their life, as the adults spend 95% of their life buried, ambushing fish. And they’ll grow to fulfill their name, reaching six feet and 100 pounds and their floppy carapaces will never harden.

If the day’s opening brought an unexpected glimpse of the joys of a small conservation victory, the day ended with a reminder of conservation’s harsh realities.

Gordon’s phone rang again. A dead dolphin had been found.

Gordon left to collect the dolphin for analysis and we drove south to the town of Kratie, where we showered and changed. Later, Wren and I went to the WWF office to see the dolphin.

It was a big animal—seven feet long and over 200 pounds. It hadn’t drowned in a net but, rather, its tail had become entangled in a long line of baited hooks and somehow the line had snagged on a log or other object and held the dolphin underwater.

I’d never confronted rarity in such a direct way as viewing the corpse. Wren was somber but composed.

After talking with Gordon about all the challenges confronting dolphin conservation—including mysteries such as why the calves have a low survival rate Wren decided her new career goal was to become a veterinarian that specializes in freshwater dolphins. Let’s hope the Mekong still has dolphins when she’s ready to go to work.

Return to for photos, videos and updates from their travels.

More: Test your knowledge of the Mekong River Basin in our online quiz.


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