Rare pink dolphins come out to play off a Thai island

A  pink dolphin poking its nose up out of the water
There are about 150 of these pink dolphins living around the Gulf of Thailand.
Image: 123RF/Phatsrivong

Fishermen in the Gulf of Thailand filmed a rare encounter with pink dolphins, which scientists say are becoming bolder in the absence of tourists during the coronavirus pandemic

The footage shows three pink dolphins swimming close to a fishing boat in calm waters off Koh Pha Ngan, an island in southeastern Thailand.

“I was so impressed, because I never imagined I would get to see pink dolphins,” said Chaiyot Saedan, the fisherman who provided the video to Reuters.

Thailand’s pink dolphins are a subspecies of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union For Conservation of Nature.

There are around 150 of these pink dolphins living around the Gulf of Thailand. Due to less traffic with the coronavirus lockdown, dolphins now have a more comfortable habitat, and that’s why they tend to show up more

Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, director of the Phuket Marine Biological Center

Tourism in Thailand has plunged more than 76% in March from a year earlier, as the country was hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

Ocean Desk Top Ten (title graphic)

10 facts about pink dolphins…

Pink dolphins are extremely rare, mainly found in only a few spots in the world, including parts of China, Hong Kong waters and sections of the Amazon river. So it was a surprise for fishermen in the Gulf of Thailand to have a rare encounter with pink dolphins

  1. Pink dolphins are a species of toothed whale and it contain three sub-species: Amazon river dolphin, Bolivian river dolphin and Orinoco river dolphin.

2. Pink dolphins are born grey and slowly turn pink as they age. Their final colour can be influenced by their behaviour, capillary placement, diet, and exposure to sunlight. The dolphins can be anywhere from mostly grey with some pink spots, to almost flamingo pink. And when the dolphins get excited, they can flush a brighter pink, similar to humans.

A pink river dolphin

3. The Amazon pink river dolphin is the largest and smartest out of the five freshwater species. A full-grown dolphin can grow up to 9 feet (2.7 m) long, weight up to 400 pounds (181 kg), and live to 30 years old. They also have unusually large brains, with up to 40% more brain capacity than humans.

4. Pink dolphins eat almost anything small that swims. Amazon river dolphins eat around 50 species of fish, including piranhas. Turtles and crabs are also on the daily diet which consists of around 2.5% of its body weight every day.

A pink river dolphin swimming

5. Pink dolphins have a powerful jaw. The front row of teeth helps to puncture and to hold fish or other prey. The back row is for crushing and smashing.

6. After they catch their food pink dolphins swallow their food without chewing. All indigestible parts (like bones or spines) are regurgitated after.

7. Pink river dolphins are extremely agile, as the vertebrae in their necks are unfused unlike other dolphins, with the ability to turn their head 180 degrees. This allows them to manoeuvre around tree trunks, rocks, and other obstacles. They can also swim forward with one flipper while paddling backwards with the other, letting them turn with more precision.

A pink river dolphin jumping out of the water

8. Although dolphins have a reputation for gathering in groups, the pink river dolphin is often seen alone or in small groups of 2-4 individuals.

9. Amazon pink river dolphins are incredibly curious and outgoing animals towards humans, and the subject of many South American legends. One story claims that during the night, the dolphins morph into handsome men to seduce womenfolk. Another claims that if you go swimming alone, the dolphins may whisk you away to a magical underwater city. It’s considered bad luck to harm the dolphins, and even worse luck to eat them.

10. The Chinese river dolphin (better known as the Yangtze river dolphin) went from a healthy population of some 6,000 to extinct within a few decades. The ‘baiji’ was declared functionally extinct in December 2006 following an intense survey of the river. The Yangtze is heavily contaminated with oil, plastic and sewage, dredged for building materials and constantly being further developed for hydroelectric power and bridge building. It is intensely used as a busy waterway by thousands of large transport vessels at any one time.

More about the Yangtze River Dolphin…

A pink river dolphin jumping out of the water

In 2006 Julian Powis interviewed Dr. Ben Collen and Dr Sam Turvey, both Research Fellows at the Zoological Society of London, and specialists on indicators of biodiversity loss...

Dr Turvey had recently returned from China, having been part of the careful search for the Yangtze river dolphin, a fruitless six-week hunt along all 3,915-miles (6,300-km) of the waterway. Nothing had been announced at this point, but it was becoming clear that after 20 million years in the Yangtze River, the species had been polluted out of existence.

I think the story of the Yangtze river dolphin serves to highlight the fact to the general public that extinctions are happening right now, most people think they happened sometime in pre-history or the effects of human actions are going to have an impact at some indeterminate point in the future. It’s difficult for people to accept that animals are dying out right now.

Dr Sam Turvey, Research Fellow at the Zoological Society of London
A pink river dolphin swimming

You can listen to the short documentary I recorded below. It was part of the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE project – Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered.’

In 2016, a decade after being declared functionally extinct, Chinese conservationists claimed to have have caught a glimpse of a freshwater dolphin in the Yangtze, however this has not yet been confirmed.


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