Dolphin watching on the Mekong River
I headed off to Cambodia to see the last population of the Irrawaddy dolphins on the mighty Mekong River.
The Mekong River, also called the Mother of Rivers, is one of the world’s most important and largest rivers. Born on the Tibet Plateau, it descends through the deep and narrow valley next 2000 kilometres. Entering Indochina, it falls to the plains, passing through several countries before entering the South China Sea after 4350 kilometres in total.
The Mekong feeds millions of people on its course with fish and fertilises rice fields with floods, the staple food in Asia.
Last oasis of the Irrawaddy dolphins
This river is also essential to global biodiversity. The Mekong itself and its floodplain are one of the hotspots of biodiversity. It harbours 20 000 plants species, 430 species of mammals, 1 200 birds, 800 species of amphibians and reptiles and 1100 species of fish.
Irrawaddy dolphin is one of these species. This emblematic mammal inhabits coastal areas and low courses of the river like Ganges, Mekong, and Irrawaddy, hence the name.
Unfortunately, the Mekong is under high threat from human activities, primarily from damming. Thus fewer than 100 dolphins remain in the Mekong in Cambodia to the Laos border.
Kratie – the dolphins capital in Cambodia
I headed off to Cambodia to see the remaining population of Irrawaddy dolphins on the Mekong. This country of troubled history is known for the magnificent temples of Angkor and the Mekong. Even Phnom Penh, the capital, was built on the banks of this mighty river on the confluence of Tonle Sap. But, while Phnom Penh is a rising metropolis with dozens of skyscrapers, the upstream river is more natural.
From Laos border to Kratie town, the Mekong flows through the mellow countryside of rice fields, plantations scattered villages. Nature is still present with flood forests and wetlands along its banks.
Kratie is a small, easy-going town on the main road to the east. The street is the centre of activity, where people eat, trade and rest, in the smoke and dust of numerous passing motorcycles and rare cars, just as elsewhere in Cambodia. What makes Kratie charming is its waterfront, large riverside where people come for a stroll, evening aerobics or morning tai-chi.
On island village
Traffic is live on the river too, with fishing boats crisscrossing the water, patiently waiting for the catch. Small boats transport both people and goods to the other side; I see a small ferry pier. This is not the opposite bank of the river but the sizeable riverine island. The Mekong is still an easy source of meat.
I hop on of these small ferries, and after a short ride, I set foot on the spacious sand beach that encompasses the island during the low water. The strong tropical sun forces me to vegetation shade, where I found a lush rural landscape with plantations of pomelo, pineapple and other tropical fruits. Traditional wooden houses on stilts witness the power of the Mekong in the rainy season, threatening with the floods. I see a large river field in the island’s centre with cows grazing the grass.
This riverine village is full of life, people doing their everyday work, children going to school, Buddhist monks in their orange robes slowly walking around.
It is Idyllic here, but I won’t find my dolphins here.
On the river
We set off early with three canoes, thrown to the muddy riverbank from a small truck some 10 kilometres upstream of Kratie. Our first goal is to reach the opposite bank. I strain my eyes to see the fuzzy details, but it is too far. I estimate that the Mekong here must be a kilometre wide, but the map tells me it is more than two longer than that! At places where the Mekong bulges like a huge belly, the width reaches an incredible ten kilometres! The river flows through numerous channels across the sediment at these places, often with no main channel, just like arteries through the tissue. Such flow is called a braided stream (river), characteristics of the middle sections of the river.
It’s a pleasure to be on the water again, on one of the top world rivers. The current is not strong, so we paddle with little effort toward the opposite bank, making a diagonal. I avoid the bush whiskers growing in the river; the bottom is obviously close. Water is not deep, but it is temporary in the midst of the dry season. Tall river banks witness that the Mekong rises several meters in the rainy season, from May until September, with the heaviest rainfall generally in August and September.
The river also changes its colour from bluish-green and somewhat clear to creamy brown and murky from abundant sand and silt suspended in the water. I dip my hand in the water, feeling the warmth, almost 30°C. Splashing from the paddling is a welcome shower on an already hot day. The air temperature will soon hit mercury at 35°C, luckily without too much humidity that suffocates Cambodia in April and May.
We are slowly paddling with no other boat in sight. River current or a swirl would briefly shake my canoe, but it is smooth sailing. Approaching the other side, numerous small islands obstruct the view of the right bank. The adventure starts here!
In the maze of islands
The river is at least a kilometre wider; its bulging belly is teeming with small islands. I am in a braided stream now, where shallow channels create a flowing labyrinth of probably hundreds of islets. The land’s lush green patches are jungles with sand rings and overgrown bars. This landscape is everchanging with the vagaries of the water levels rising and receding. Floods are sculptors of this environment.
Some channels are narrow passages, just wide enough for our canoes. I can touch the sand or branches of the bush. Several surprised duck panicky take off and vanish with the tumult of the feathers flapping. Other than that, I can only hear paddles hitting the water…
We decide to land on one of the beaches, to rest and refresh. I jump to the river, enjoying the warm water. While others stay to have some water fun, splashing and wrestling, I take the opportunity to explore the environment. I enter the maze of channels again, just on the smaller scales. Water flows everywhere but is shallow enough to wade barefoot through the mosaic of water, sand and jungle. Passages open on every step, so I must remember the path not to get lost. Water is transparent enough to see small fishes; this habitat is perfect for fish spawning.
I could explore for hours here, but the temperature is still rising, and we are losing time for quality dolphin watching still ahead of us. It’s time to resume the paddling.
On the Mekong roller coaster
Soon to speed up, the current started to drag us toward the murmuring rapids in front of us. I pressed harder peddle as the boat began to shake from the Mekong rollercoaster. At the same time, I had to slalom around the giant trees with enormous trunks growing directly in the river. I can hardly imagine how can these trees oppose the flooding time when the river’s strength increases multifold.
We slalomed between woody giants while the Mekong sprinkled us from all directions. Whirl would shake and derail, a sign of invisible but dangerous obstacles like boulders or drowned trees. Adrenaline-pumped rapids didn’t last long, and silence soon took over but was pierced by mysterious blowing sounds.
I went dolphin watching with Sorya kayaking