Have you seen this dolphin?

it was a dark and monsoon-y night.

Prelude, or: I need more sleep.
I knew this dame would be trouble the moment she walked in.   She has “field researcher” written all over her, like sloppy scribbles in a Rite in the Rain notebook.

Another grad student.  Why don’t I ever get the rich ones?

“I need your help.  I think the dolphins are in danger…”

“What makes you think that?”

“Well…there aren’t many left.  But I can’t know for sure how bad it is unless I know what it was like before.  I need a baseline.”   Her eyes lit up with intense curiosity, electric enough to explain the frizz in her hair.

That’s what they always want.  A baseline. “Why don’t you go to Web of Science?  Why come to me?”  My patience wore thin.  Real thin.  Like her hole-riddled, button-down field shirt.

“That’s the problem… scientists haven’t been studying these populations for very long.  I need someone to find information from the past, to figure out if there were more dolphins before.”

“Oh yeah?  I don’t work for cheap, kid.  You’re a grad student.  How will you pay me?”

“I can get you mangoes.  Guimaras. Mangoes.”

I don’t get excited for much, but those two words got me.  I was stuck to this case, like the duct tape holding her ragged field pants together.  I put down the bourbon and picked up my clipboard.  Time to go dig up the dirt on these dolphins.   Time to rustle up some informants and ask some standardized questions.

they really are that good

How this is relevant:
To understand the conservation status of Irrawaddy dolphins and their ecosystems, we need to look to the past.  Understanding how things have changed over the previous decades gives us a context for assessing the current situation.  Knowing that a currently small population used to be much larger, and inhabit a much larger area, indicates that there have been some significant impacts to that population of animals – which is cause for concern.

But, the Guimaras and Negros Irrawaddy dolphins haven’t even been known to science for a single decade.  The Malampaya Sound Irrawaddy dolphins have only been known to science since the late 1990s. We have no scientific baseline to work from before then. In the absence of dedicated scientific studies, local fishers are probably the best sources of marine megafauna data for recent historical periods.  They’ve been around, on the coast and in the sea, for decades.

Dr. Louella Dolar (Tropical Marine Research for Conservation) and Mavic Matillano (WWF-Philippines) have collected information from older members of local communities at these sites – exciting stories of dolphin times past.  Dr. Lilian Parreno (Guimaras State College) and her research team have been working on similar surveys since last year.

I’m currently trying to follow in their footsteps by conducting informal and standardized interviews of coastal communities about their local ecological knowledge (LEK) of dolphins.  Sometimes, it involves picking a barangay that seems like it would be on the edge of the dolphins’ range, wandering over there with our marine mammal identification photos, and asking, “Which dolphins have you seen here?”, and “Have you seen this dolphin?”  Fortunately, the Irrawaddy dolphins are pretty distinctive, with their stubby, round faces.


Informal survey in the outer limits of Irrawaddy dolphin habitat in Malampaya. Particularly informal for one of the field assistants...

It’s fascinating to think about the questions we could potentially answer through interviews:  Where did the dolphins used to be, 20, 30, 50 years ago?  How many used to be in a group?  How often would they be seen?  What has changed over the past decades?  It’s a little like playing detective.  We’ve come across some really interesting stories, which I’ll share in the next post.

It’s been trickier than I’d hoped – people’s reports vary widely, and the logistics of getting to all of the villages have been challenging.  And, sadly, a picture is emerging of a past with more abundant fisheries and more abundant dolphins who came closer to shore and weren’t afraid of boats or people, both here in Guimaras and in Malampaya Sound.  Listening to some of the very old fishers talk makes me feel like crying sometimes – hearing the wistfulness in their voices as they describe the seemingly idyllic past.  Of course, memory isn’t perfect.  And of course, people have a tendency to romanticize the past.  But I still get the sense that so much has changed, and much of it for the worse.