Published: 00:52, August 11, 2023 | Updated: 10:04, August 11, 2023
Whale welfare is an issue worthy of public attention
By James Durston

On July 13, a Bryde’s whale appeared in the waters around Sai Kung, and was swiftly surrounded by hordes of boats and snap-happy sightseers. It was a beautiful moment for wildlife lovers in Hong Kong, as we were suddenly reminded of Mother Nature’s presence.

For a city so connected to the sea, whose early fortunes were inextricably linked to maritime trade, witnessing the native denizens of the oceans is surprisingly rare. Boats and cargo vessels have taken up the sea lanes, forcing the animals elsewhere. So the whale offered a refreshing opportunity to check our entitlement, to pause and allow nature to take its turn. It was as if an oceanic door had been mistakenly left open. Then, two weeks later, the whale was found dead, a large gash splitting its dorsal fin, and the door slammed shut. Mother Nature was rudely ejected; the fume-pumping boats and vessels took back their stolen territory.

The exact cause of death is still being debated as we wait for the official necropsy report. However, pundits have suggested that the whale was already injured when it arrived in Hong Kong, and was using the relatively placid waters around Sai Kung to convalesce. Now there are calls for Hong Kong to install laws to protect whales. But shouldn’t better education for Hong Kong residents also be required? Complaints about whale-spotting tours stressing out the creature and possibly contributing to its death centered on three culprits — the lack of a law preventing them, the tour operators, and their rubber-necking customers.

Ali Bullock, a former Hong Kong brand and communications consultant, who also worked for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and now the founder and president of the Ocean Azores Foundation, a marine conservation organization with a particular focus on whales, says there are good reasons to increase protection of whales and cetaceans. “The carbon capture potential of whales is truly startling,” he says. “Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies during their lives — which can be as long as 90 years. When they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean having sequestered 33 tons of CO2 on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries. A tree, absorbs only around 22 kilos of CO2 a year.”

Now there are calls for Hong Kong to install laws to protect whales. But shouldn’t better education for Hong Kong residents also be required

In the Azores, a group of islands 1,400 kilometers west of Portugal where Bullock now runs the Solar Branco Eco Estate hotel, whales used to be hunted and their parts sold. Now whale hunting is illegal, and whale watching has taken its place thanks to a combination of political will and civil determination. Residents realized that whales could contribute to the economy, just as they had done when hunted, but in even greater and more sustainable ways. “The Azores’ marine protected areas cover 110,000 square kilometers and show how tourism and marine sustainability can coexist,” Bullock says. “Ocean conservation supports tourism, bringing in economic support for the islands and more investment in tourism.”

The WWF in Hong Kong would like more oceanic space given over to marine animals. “Only about 5 percent of Hong Kong waters are designated or planned to be established as marine protected areas, far behind the internationally advocated target of 30 percent by 2030,” says Dr Loby Hau Cheuk-yu, assistant manager for oceans sustainability at WWF HK.

Protecting these areas, not only for dolphins and whales, but also for the fish they feed on, would have a significant impact on the viability of Hong Kong seas for wildlife.

But the WWF also thinks better civilian education is another key factor in any conservation effort. “The public and frequent marine users have to be educated about the right attitude and guidelines in response to sightings/encounters of marine mammals,” adds Hau. “This incident can be a great opportunity for society to learn to respect these large marine animals and their habitats, their living spaces, and seek a way for the coexistence of humans and nature.”

We may not hunt whales in these parts, but if our actions when they arrive end up killing them anyway, clearly something needs to be addressed. Perhaps the new Ocean Park exhibit that showcases endangered species may help.

The author is a journalist and editor covering travel, culture and lifestyle stories from around the world. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.