China Daily (Hong Kong)
STUDENTS SET SAIL TO STUDY DOLPHINS
Summer camp participants take part in scientific research, conservation work
Xie Xixian, 13, carefully picked sand off his slippers before placing it in a plastic bag and writing a label to record where the sample was taken from.
Zhang Chenyun, a 9-year-old girl, was just as eager to keep her sample of sand, telling her mother not to throw it away. Every few days, she also asked when she could return to Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region to meet her “animal friends” again.
In the last week of July, the pair and 16 other students from Beijing, Changsha, capital of Hunan province, Zhuhai, Guangdong province, and Kunming, Yunnan province, traveled to Qinzhou in southern Guangxi to attend a special summer camp on biodiversity and life education.
Xie told a WeChat group comprising students and teachers at the camp: “We should have stayed longer in Sanniang Bay (in Qinzhou). I really miss the life there.”
Zhao Yi, a researcher at a biodiversity research center in Sanniang Bay, said young people attending the camp follow a team of scientists and take part in scientific research and nature conservation.
“Through a series of courses on natural sciences, humanities and social sciences, and outdoor survival, our students experience the magic of nature and the preciousness of life, establishing a scientific spirit and appreciating the concept of environmental protection,” he added. Instead of staying in urban areas, students benefit from new classrooms built by the beach and sea, with scientists as their teachers, and marine life — including Chinese white dolphins — as their “teaching assistants”.
This species, which is under firstclass State protection in China, was included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species in 2008. It has long been considered equally important as the giant panda.
Chinese white dolphins have existed for about 10 million years. Around 8 million years ago, some dolphins left what is now Australia, heading northwest toward the Sunda archipelago in Indonesia before continuing onward to the South China Sea.
The marine mammals are unique to China, where their habitats are coastal areas off the Pearl River Delta, the Leizhou Peninsula in Guangdong, Xiamen harbor in Fujian province, and Taiwan.
Sanniang Bay has long been a home of the Chinese white dolphin, and the species has evolved over time.
On arrival, the students were quickly drawn to dolphin calves, whose skin changes color as they mature. The calves are usually dark gray, while older dolphins are a lighter shade of gray, and adults are an off-white. A dolphin’s skin turns pink in old age.
After attending sessions where they learned to observe and identify dolphins and venture out to sea safely, the students boarded powerboats, from which they sighted a group of white dolphins swimming and leaping close by.
Scientists pointed to the dolphins, indicating young ones and adults. The students kept records of the dolphins they observed, and this data will be important for scientists studying the creatures’ life habits.
Holding life education classes at sea for students is a relatively recent development.
In June 2004, when there were fewer than 100 dolphins in the Sanniang Bay area, one was discovered with serious injuries.
Pan Wenshi, a professor and wildlife expert at Peking University, and local fishermen identified the young female, which was later named Qin Qin, after the city of Qinzhou.
The dolphin’s neck had become tightly tangled in a nylon rope that looked like a fishing net, and her skin was cut and torn. Despite blood flowing from her wounds, the dolphin had followed a fishing boat, attempting to eat fish in the vessel’s net.
Pan’s daughter, Pan Yue, who is also a scientist at the research center, said: “She wanted to live. Even with such serious injuries, she still had a strong will to survive. It was at that moment that my dad decided to stay and protect her and other dolphins.”
The center was established in Sanniang Bay in November 2004 by Pan Wenshi and his scientific research team from Peking University, with the aim of protecting Chinese white dolphins.
It also marked a starting point for scientists to find a balance between protecting biodiversity and promoting local economic development.
“Humans can’t live alone on earth. They should coexist with all living creatures,” Pan Wenshi said.
Lessons in harmony
The students observed dolphins by following Lin Qiang’s boat and the directions in which he pointed. Known in the Sanniang Bay area for his ability to pinpoint the location of dolphins, Lin is an indispensable member of the research team.
“There will be different fluctuations of the sea surface if there are dolphins in the water,” said Lin, 53, a native of Sanniang Bay village.
Born to a fishing family that lives about 100 meters from the sea, he attributes his ability to locate dolphins to his rich fishing experience over the years.
He no longer fishes, but is responsible for ferrying researchers, helping with GPS orientation, recording the dolphins’ sounds, and taking photographs of them. He also measures the depth and temperature of seawater.
Zhao, the researcher, said Lin’s working life has changed in tandem with the area’s gradual integration with biodiversity conservation, reflecting a change of attitude by local residents.
“Dolphins used to be viewed as fishermen’s enemies, as they were competing for fishery resources,” Zhao said.
He told a life education class that fishermen sometimes chased white dolphins away or set up electric nets to catch more fish, which harmed the dolphins. “This might be why Qin Qin was injured,” he added.
Overfishing depleted ecosystem resources in white dolphin habitats, and the large number of boats used to catch fish also polluted the sea, driving dolphins away, Zhao said.
Meanwhile, Lin and other experienced fishermen found that local fish stocks were declining along with the number of white dolphins.
“Fishermen had to sail farther to catch enough fish, and it became increasingly difficult for them to support their families,” Lin said.
“We then realized the presence of dolphins meant that seawater quality was good, there would be more fish and we could catch enough to support our families,” Lin told the students.
Local residents are now aware that protecting the dolphins is just like safeguarding themselves, or any human, he said, adding, “Villagers come to me and tell me if anyone is fishing illegally.”
Lin and three other fishermen who are in Pan Wenshi’s team earn about 2,000 yuan ($297) a month for their dolphin conservation work, and their family businesses have benefited from the improved marine environment.
Many tourists are drawn to Sanniang Bay, where they observe white dolphins and dine on seafood. The tourism industry, which has developed along with protection measures for the dolphins, has also brought increased wealth to local fishing villages.
Yu Wenfei, one of the co-organizers of the summer camp, said, “In Sanniang Bay, environmental protection and economic development are not contradictory, but complement each other.
“We hope our students can learn such knowledge and concepts through field visits and research — not just from textbooks.”
On their way to another outdoor lesson, the students traveled 10 kilometers by bus along Sandun Road, which runs between Qinzhou Bay and Sanniang Bay.
Built in 2009, the road acts as a “red line” separating the port and the bay protection area. In addition, a shipyard project in this area backed by investment of billions of yuan was halted.
The west side of the road is used for port construction work and economic development, while the white dolphins’ habitat lies to the east.
The students took seawater samples from both sides of the road. The water taken near an industrial park was cloudy and contained many pollutants, while the other sample was clear and suitable for marine life.
Zhao said the road has turned Sanniang Bay into a relatively quiet sanctuary for the Chinese white dolphin, ensuring that economic development has minimum effect on the species.
“This trip enabled the students to understand the extent to which human activities affect biodiversity conservation. I hope that in the future they can gradually shake off some habits that may destroy biodiversity,” he added.
Chen Ruoxian, the mother of summer camp participant Zhang Chenyun, said such educational activities act as “seeds planted in the children’s hearts”, allowing them to continue to find ways in which nature and human development can coexist harmoniously.
“Maybe the kids won’t become experts in related fields, but they can contribute to protecting biodiversity in many ways. They have realized the importance and equality of every single living being,” she said.
The students were excited to learn that Qin Qin, the badly injured dolphin, survived and had given birth to two calves.
Xie Xixian, the 13-year-old, said: “Next time, I hope I can see Qin Qin and her calves. I will definitely return to Sanniang Bay.”