What is believed to be a Bryde’s whale was spotted feeding in Hong Kong’s eastern waters, near Sai Kung, almost a month ago on July 13, 2023. Although Chinese white dolphins make regular appearances in Hong Kong waters, whales are rare guests that are only seen once every few years. Therefore, the following weeks saw masses of tourists and residents flock to the seas in hopes of catching a glimpse of this majestic cetacean in proximity. In a move to capitalize on public eagerness to race to the site of the sighting, some boat operators in Sai Kung began organizing boat tours regardless of guidance from NGOs and experts that strongly advise against it.
Some believe the baleen whale was simply passing through these waters to feed. However, the whale has continued making appearances in the area. As photos picturing two large cuts on its back that are hypothesized to be propeller-induced began proliferating on social media, concerns were raised that the substantial human activity had already inflicted harm upon the whale within the first two weeks of its stay. Although Cheng Ka-Tai, chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society (HKDCS), has recently noted on a local radio show that the wounds appear to be old wounds that are in their final stages of healing, Lydia Pang, senior manager of Oceans Conservation of WWF, has postulated that its prolonged stay in the area could indicate that it is feeling unwell.
Experts also warned early on that extensive disturbance to the whale could force it closer to shore, increasing the risk of cetacean stranding. Two weeks into the whale’s stay, one boat operator in Sai Kung, Miss Chan, who routinely brings divers to sea and back reported spotting the whale close to shore where the water is only 5 meters deep. She proceeded to voice her concerns about the whale getting beached. Marine experts have also noticed a change in feeding pattern by the whale, as it is seen to be prolonging the periods in between meals.
Amidst these worrying developments, netizens have been urging the government and NGOs to take action to ensure the safety and well-being of the whale. Following these calls, on July 27, HKDCS suggested to the government the creation of a temporary zone of protection, within which the speed of vessels would be limited. However, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department responded the following day stating that due to the unpredictability in location and timing of the whale’s appearances, creating a zone of protection remains unfeasible.
Some netizens drew links between this sighting and the last recorded sighting of a Bryde’s whale in nearby waters during the summer of 2021, which ended in the death of the animal. However, warnings against repeating history and prayers from worried netizens soon turned into comments that forebode the gentle giant’s fate. Just three weeks after the whale’s first appearance in local waters, its carcass was spotted afloat in Sai Kung waters on the morning of July 31, 2023. A new wound caused by collision with a hard object, most likely a vessel, was also found on its dorsal fin upon the discovery of its carcass.
A press release from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department notes that the department completed a necropsy on the marine mammal in collaboration with experts from Ocean Park, the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The whale’s cause of death is yet to be announced as analyses on whale tissue samples are still being carried out. The carcass is set to be buried near High Island Reservoir West Dam and sent to Ocean Park for research purposes after natural decay. The AFDC adds that as chemicals and machines will be used during the burial, members of the public are urged to stay away.
Outraged and grieving locals have since been calling for better regulations to protect future cetacean visitors. Pit Hok Yau, a researcher for The Hong Kong Animal Law and Protection Organisation, wrote in an opinion article for Hong Kong Free Press that although some legislation exists to protect cetaceans, they are inadequate due to three main problems: the vague definitions of terms used in the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance, poor enforcement of legislation, and the lack of legal power AFCD’s Code of Practice for Dolphin Watching Activities holds. He ends his article by urging the government to immediately reform marine animal protection laws.
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