Searching for the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins of the Mekong River in Cambodia

I looked out over the fast flowing muddy waters of the Mekong River as our boat made its way to the riverbank, its engine fighting against the strong current. It was a small wooden boat with a blue canopy for shade, capable of seating four passengers, but my wife and I would be the only passengers on this particular boat. The driver, who was standing up on the back of the boat and looking over the top of the canopy, carefully pulled the boat up to the riverbank and we jumped onboard at the stern of the boat, taking a seat on the wooden benches.

Boat on the Mekong River in Kampi, Cambodia

Our boat makes its way to the riverbank

He let the strong current of the Mekong take us out from the riverbank and down river for a while until he turned the throttle on the motor to take us upstream and out into the middle of the river.

We were currently in Kampi – a small village located about 15 kilometres north of Kratie in North-Eastern Cambodia – one of the best places to view the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins that inhabit the Mekong River.

Searching for Irrawaddy Dolphins in Cambodia

View from the stern of our boat as we search for Irrawaddy Dolphins

It was the wet season so the Mekong was very full, but there were still lots of islands, or at least vegetation sticking up through the water where there would be islands when the river was lower. We slowly made our way upstream to a pool between some of these islands, where, to my satisfaction, our driver turned off the noisy engine and began paddling with a huge oar, just enough to keep us from drifting downstream. There was only one other boat there and that also had its engine turned off.

Boat driver paddling with an oar on the mekong river

Our driver paddling the boat with an oar in the dolphin’s habitat

Everything was quiet besides the sound of the water. We sat still, watching and waiting.

Suddenly from behind me I heard the sound of spurting water as if someone was loudly clearing water from their nose. I turned around just in time to see a small grey dorsal fin pop out of the water and disappear.

I waited again, but this time I was looking in the right direction. Suddenly, one of the little dolphins breached the water to take a breath of air, soon followed by some others. I stared open mouthed, so happy to just be in the presence of these rare and amazing creatures.

Two Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Mekong River in Cambodia

Two Irrawaddy Dolphins breach the water

I heard more snorting from behind me where another group of dolphins had made an appearance. They only popped out of the water for a second before heading back under water, sometimes appearing again a few seconds later further up the river. At other times they would disappear for what seemed like ages. It was impossible to count how many there were as they kept popping up in different parts of the river, and there was no way to tell if they were the same dolphins that I had just seen.

An Irrawaddy Dolphin in the Mekong River in Cambodia

A dolphin pops it’s head up above the water while another trails behind it

Our driver had now tied the boat up to a tree that was sticking out of the water, lying down on the life jackets to have a snooze while we just sat and appreciated this amazing experience. Taking photos of the dolphins was almost impossible as it was hard to judge where they would appear, and they only did so for a second. I found myself just randomly snapping shots, hoping to capture a moment when one of the dolphins breached the water. It didn’t really matter though. I was just happy to be able to have this privilege.

Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Mekong River in Cambodia

Fin of Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Mekong River in Cambodia

The Irrawaddy Dolphins of the Mekong River are critically endangered. They are now only found along a small stretch of the river between Southern Laos and Northern Cambodia, and it’s estimated that there are less than 90 of them left. Their numbers have dwindled over the years due to hunting, loss of habitat and worst of all, drowning in fishing nets. In recent years there has also apparently been an increase in dead calves washing up in the river and it is unknown why.

Fishermen on the Mekong River in Cambodia

Fishermen on the Mekong River, south of where we spotted the dolphins

I am always concerned about tourism and animals being mixed together – often they are better left alone – so I did have my worries about taking a boat tour to see the dolphins. In this case however, it feels like tourism could actually help these little dolphins. They have become a drawcard for tourists to Kratie, and therefore it is bringing money into the local area. The boat drivers appear to be aware and concerned for the dolphins and their habitat. Turning off the engine when we got near, for example, is a positive sign to me that they do care about them. They don’t want to disturb them and risk hurting them with their boats. These boat drivers would get more money from tourists wanting to see the dolphins than they would from fishing the river, so that also keeps the nets out of the river, giving the dolphins a chance to survive, and possibly even increase in population.

Tourism brings in money, and money is what could really help the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins of the Mekong River. If you’re travelling to Kratie, definitely take the time to visit them. It is an amazing experience, and these little dolphins need your help. I’m very glad that I went, and I hope that next time I visit they will still be there.

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9 comments… add one
  • Gautham Dec 7, 2013

    Wow, you get to evidence the sight of Dolphins. They are my favorite animal. They are friendlier than dogs if we once get familiarized.

  • Ruth Dec 13, 2013

    What an experience! We have tons of dolphins along the California coast and it is really amazing to see hundreds of them when going for a boat ride.

    • Dean Wickham Dec 29, 2013

      Hi Ruth. There is something humbling about seeing dolphins in the wild isn’t there? This was a great experience.

  • Dan Dec 25, 2013

    That’s so cool you spotted a couple of them! Such a nice surprise when dolphins just pop up

    • Dean Wickham Dec 29, 2013

      Yeah it was wonderful Dan. It’s so good to see these animals in the wild.

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