Meet the Irrawaddy Dolphin

The Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) is a species of dolphin whose distribution extends from the Bay of Bengal to northern Australia. The most interesting aspect of this oceanic mammal, which measures up to 2.3 metres and weighs up to 130 kilograms, is the fact that it can also be found in large rivers, deep inside the Asian continent. The fresh waters of the mighty Irrawaddy river in Myanmar (from where it gets its common name) as well as the illustrious Mekong river in Laos and northern Cambodia are two places where these animals live in small colonies. Unfortunately these are also the places where they are most vulnerable and threatened by extinction, despite drastic protection measures put in place in all three of the above-mentioned countries.

Here in Cambodia one popular place to observe the Irrawaddy dolphin is just north of Kratie, a town in the province bearing the same name, about 200 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh. The rainy season (from June to November) is the best time to see them as they tend to congregate in the shallow waters of the flooded riverside plains where they find it easier to hunt. The local guides know exactly where to go and sightings are guaranteed – the mammals need to breath so they come to the surface in regular intervals to get a dose of air. They stay visible for a brief moment before they disappear again.

During our twenty minute stay in the area we saw the dolphins numerous times. Often solitary, but sometimes in pairs or small groups, they would surface head first, then make that typical dolphin-like half-circle before saying good-bye with their impressive tails. Seeing them in this environment was an extraordinary experience – swimming graciously in the endless muddy waters of the Mekong and in between the trees rising from the flooded plains. According to our guide, only about 60 of them remain in the area.

Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris)

Photographing the animals was extremely hard. With grey skies and heavy rain (i.e. low light), my only hope of taking any decent pictures was if the dolphins surfaced somewhere near the boat and if I was fast enough to point a camera at them in time. Here I present my two best photographs. The one above gives a rough idea what the area looked like, with the back of one dolphin in the middle of the shot. The picture below is better – I was lucky to shoot at the right moment when a pair showed up about 50 meters from the boat.

Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris)

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