Whale Watching in Hong Kong’s Temples

Whale watching in Hong Kong is more of a forensic affair based on dead bodies. I am not talking about strandings of dolphins or whales. I am talking about whale bones lurking in dark corners of temples in Southern China, specifically Hong Kong.

Though large whales may occasionally pass through Hong Kong, most of them seem to only show up as carcasses washed in by tide and current. Even this is fairly rare. In the historical past when a dead or dying whale washed up in Hong Kong, it was often a big social and commercial event, because the whales carcass could be hacked apart to extract anything useful. Most notably the blubber could be boiled down to cooking oil and lamp oil.  All that was left at the end was the skeleton. And the bones were sometimes kept and displayed in temples.

It’s not been easy finding information on the role that whales played in Chinese culture in the past. Certainly there is no great tradition of whaling in China as there was in Japan – at least as far as I can see. One interesting tidbit I found refers to the famous “first emperor of China” – Qin Shi Huang (259–210 BC) who founded the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) and who had the Terracotta Army built. His mausoleum, which was rediscovered in the 1990s twenty-two miles east of Xi’an, contained candles made from whale fat [blubber].

However, there are plenty of examples of whale bones in Hong Kong temples.

Tin Hau Temple, Peng Chau

I visited this temple not too long ago and saw that it has 2 large whale ribs ( about 1.8m in length). I don’t know the species, but for those interested there is a plaque explaining the bones in the temple as far as I remember.

A large blackened rib of a whale leaning against the right wall between the altar and the statue.

Yeung Hau Temple, Tai O

Although dedicated to Hau Wong, the temple also hosts some other gods including Hung Shing (the god of the sea) which explains the whale vertebrae and sawfish snouts kept next to his altar.

hau-wong-temple-tai-o
The bill of a sawfish leaning against the altar on the left wall with some whale vertebrae in front.

Kwan Tai Temple, Tai O

I actually found no information on the whale bones at this temple on the internet. But as I saw them for myself and took the below picture, I include this temple in this list.

Whale vertebrae and an explanatory plaque st Kwan Tai Temple, Tai O

Tam Kung Miu Temple, Coloane, Macau

The temple is dedicated to Tam Kung, the Taoist god of sailors and houses a four-foot replica of a dragon boat made from whale bone  (most likely a rib) – complete with wooden sailors in red robes and yellow hats.

The dragon boat made of whale bone (rib)
The dragon boat made of whale bone (rib) with a piece of whale rib leaning against the wall behind it.

Pak Tai Temple, Cheung Chau

Contains some whale bone fragments which were dredged up in a fishermen’s trawl and then presented to the temple deity along with a few snouts of sawfish.

Another whale rib (covered in flaking red paint) leaning in the corner to the left of this minor altar.

Hau Wong Temple, Tung Chung

Hosts a ‘large whalebone’ which I have yet to see.

Tin Hau Temple, Yung Shue Wan, Lamma

In the temple exhibits an ancient whale skeleton that enshrines the Tin Hau. I have not seen it yet so I can not confirm this.

Tin Hau Temple, Sha Chau Island

Sha Chau is part of the marine park often dubbed ‘dolphin sanctuary’. Inside the Tin Hau temple on the island there is allegedly a four feet long model of a dragon boat made from whalebone, though I can not confirm this.

Another large whale rib in the Tin Hau Temple on Sha Chau Island

Tin Hau Temple, Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island

An oarfish ( a rare deep-sea dwelling fish) that was washed ashore is kept in preservatives in a tank on display at this temple.

sokkwuwan-oar-fish
While alive this deep-sea fish would have had radiant red-pink fins and a silver body.

If you know of any other temples in Hong Kong, Macao or the greater Guangdong area , please leave me a comment!

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HK Dolphinwatch, the 3rd Runaway and Underwater Hydraulic Drilling

Yesterday we spent a fantastic morning doing some dolphin watching with HK Dolphinwatch. Leaving from the Tung Chung New Development Pier at Tung Chung we cruised along north Lantau towards Tai O, where we then encountered a group of 5-6 Indopacific Humpback Dolphins (Sousa chinensis), know locally as Chinese White Dolphins or simply the pink dolphins. They gave us plenty to look at with tail-splashing, jumping and coming in quite close to the boat. While I am no photographer and have no clue how to use my Nikon DSLR, I think the resulting pictures are still pretty good.

 

A rare shot showing the dolphins head. You can see the bulge at the front of the head, where an organ called "the melon" is located which plays a role in the dolphins echolocation system.
A rare shot showing the dolphins head. You can see the bulge at the front of the head, where an organ called “the melon” is located which plays a role in the dolphins echolocation system.
Some say its dolphin watching, I wonder though, as this dolphin seems to be out people-watching.
Some say its dolphin watching, I wonder though, as this dolphin seems to be out people-watching.
Coming up for air.
Coming up for air.
Diving down a dolphin stretches its flukes up, that seem to be waving good bye.
Diving down a dolphin stretches its flukes up, that seem to be waving good bye.
Two pink dolphins with the constructions barges for the MAcao-Zhuhai Bridge looming on the horizon.
Two pink dolphins with the constructions barges for the MAcao-Zhuhai Bridge looming on the horizon.
A group of 3 curious dolphins
A group of 3 curious dolphins
A rare shot of a dolphin almost straightedned out with the fluke visible under the water
A rare shot of a dolphin almost straightedned out with the fluke visible under the water
The name Indopacific "Humpback" Dolphin is an apt one.
The name Indopacific “Humpback” Dolphin is an apt one.
A dolphin with a slightly notched dorsal fin in front of our boat
A dolphin with a slightly notched dorsal fin in front of our boat
A dolphin about to smack his flukes loudly on the water surface.
A dolphin about to smack his flukes loudly on the water surface.
The grey color indeicates a younger individual compared to the white dolphin.
The grey color indeicates a younger individual compared to the white dolphin.

If you have kids, this is probably the No.1 outing for your budding marine biologists, not just because of the dolphins (always popular!), but also because you and your kids can see the impact humans have on wildlife right there in front of you. Among the many threats thatthe dolphins face, the latest one is the Macao-Zhuhai-Bridge being constructed right through their habitat, as well as the proposed 3rd runway for the Chek Lap Kok airport. Before the Chek Lap Kok airport was build there were thought to be aroudn 150+ dolphins in the area. Then came the blasting and levelling off of the small island of Chek Lap Kok which was then used to fill in a 9 square kilometer area for the airport as well as surrounding infrastructure and development. And then the construction of the Macao-Zhuhai-Bridge started. Now it is just 60 odd. Why? Among the reasons surely is noise. As most people will know, dolphins don’t just communicate with sound, they also use it for echolocation especially in the murky and muddy waters of estuaries where our pink dolphins live.

The below video was made and posted to Vimeo by Sea Shephard Hong Kong and shows you just how bad the noise levels in the dolphins habitat are.

Underwater construction noise is the equivalent of shining flood lights in humans faces. Imagine trying to make your breakfast, work, do the supermarket shopping, take care of children or hold a normal conversation while all the time someone pointing a search light in your face thats constantly flickering – you would not get much done! And you would be super stressed.
Thats how the dolphins feel – and these constructions projects last several years!
But there is more: add sewage, heavy boat traffic and high speed ferries, toxic algal blooms, heavy metal contamination, PCB’s and organochlorides, flame retardant chemicals to the mix and the fact that there is little to eat because the seas are so overfished and the seabed was trawled so heavily that it does not support much in the way of food production anymore.
Sticking with the dolphin-human analogy: not only would you suffer from blinding lights day-in-day-out for years, your children might be stillborn or die soon after birth because your body passed to your child environmental contaminats from the little food you could find in these famine conditions. And then cars, trucks and trains constantly bomb through your garden and house unpredictably, frequently maiming or even killing a member of your family or a neighbor.
In short, you can see, that you would not want to be reborn as a pink dolphin in Hong Kong!
Unless we start to do something about it. Check out the below links to find out more about how you can help.

Hong Kong Dolphin conservation Society

Voice your concerns about the Third Runway roject with WWF HK

 

 

 

HK Airport 3rd Runway Risks Loss of Hong Kong’s Remaining Dolphin Population

Conservationists claim that only three sightings of Chinese white dolphins have been recorded in Hong Kong this year.
The population of Hong Kong’s Chinese White Dolphins has dropped by 60% since 1997 in what the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society (HKDCS) calles an ecological disaster. Since 1997 the dolphin’s habitat saw the completion of the Chek Lap Kok International Airport, wave after wave of town development in Tung Chung and Tuen Mun, a landfill development and more recently, the construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge project which is still ongoing. This HKDCS says has almost destroyed the white dolphins habitat.

According to statistics, there were 158 white dolphins in Hong Kong in 2003 but this number fell to 62 last year (2013) – a drop of 60% -causing great concern. In addition the current scheme to build a third runway at the airport, would cover an area of 650 hectares and would be the second largest reclamation project ever and is loacted in the white dolphins habitat. But the Airport Authority so far refuses to set meet with environmental groups and refuses to give full explanation of data and has been jointly criticized by nine environmental groups. It is currently understood that the Airport Authority will soon publish and interim Environmental Impact Assessment report on the third runway project and a 30th public consultation will be held.

WWF Infographic showing threats to the chinese white dolphin in Hong Kong (click to enlarge to original size)
WWF Infographic showing threats to the chinese white dolphin in Hong Kong (click to enlarge to original size)

The construction works have forced the dolphins to move further west as the noise affects their navigation and communication skills and the barges parked in the harbor creates sediment blooms affecting their food supply. Either that or they’ve died and or giving less birth.

Samuel Hung, President of Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, urged the public to make good use of 30th consultation to express their views and take concrete actions to protect white dolphins. The Hong Kong dolphin conservation, Hong Kong Friends of the Earth and public Professional Union has conducted a “social cost and the returns assessment” study to estimate the effects of the third runway project’s on the public and its social effects which found that the white dolphin could earn Hong Kong some HKD 36.1 billion over ten years in ecological tourism revenue.