It is an honour for me to participate in the fieldwork with the professors from Marine Mammal and Marine Bioacoustics Laboratory Sanya Institute of Deep-sea Science and Engineering from 18th to 30th January. During these 13 days, we travelled to Leizhou Bay in Zhanjiang and experienced sea expedition. We tried to collect DNA tissue samples from living Chinese White Dolphins in order to study about their genetic relations with the populations in surrounding waters.
Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins, also known as Chinese White Dolphins, mainly live in the western water of Hong Kong and the adjacent Pearl River Estuary. However, in 2014, professors from Marine Mammal and Marine Bioacoustics Laboratory discovered some Chinese White Dolphins in the waters of Sanya, Hainan. This new discovery changes existing concepts and begins the research on Chinese White Dolphins in Sanya. Using passive acoustic monitors, professors can determine the age, number and distribution of the dolphins. They also collect DNA from tissue samples of living dolphins to see the health conditions and relationships within the populations in surrounding waters. I was given an opportunity to join the DNA samples collection in Leizhou Bay of Zhanjiang.
Weather is one of the mostly important criteria for our work. Only on sunny days with low wind speed can one encounter dolphins in the sea. The second one is our luck. There is no guarantee that we can see dolphins when we work. Therefore, we always need to wait for other days to work if the weather is not good, sometimes waiting for a long time on the ship to see Chinese White Dolphins.
When we see Chinese White Dolphins, we first follow their paths and slowly get close to their sides. Then, we prepare the Tissue Sampling Applicator (Gun) for shooting TSU, which is the combination of needle, connection piece and collection tube, to the dorsal fin of a dolphin. TSU attaches to dorsal fin. Later, it bounces off from the fin and floats on the sea surface. After that, we take TSU back with some tissue collected in it.
The process of DNA sampling collection repeats until an adequate amount of specimen has been collected. The samples are then used for DNA fingerprinting and analysed to understand the relationship among the dolphins.
The conservation work was not as easy as I thought. Certain, people who want to work for the environment and ecology must be passionate. In addition, they ought to have stunningly persistent and patient attitudes for getting the successful experimental results and drawing concrete conclusions.
Professors said that they have been gathering samples for more than one year. Without enough tissue samples, they cannot continue their work. Nevertheless, the collection of DNA samples from wild Chinese White Dolphins is so hard. There are many uncontrollable factors, such as weather and luck, affecting the whole process of the work.
In these 13 days, because of the bad weather, we only managed to experience sea expedition twice. On the ship, we waited to meet the dolphins for around five to six hours. Spending such a long time on the unstable ship, I would get sick easily and often wanted to give up. And sometimes, we cannot see any dolphins on that day. Moreover, we weren’t always successful shooting the Gun onto the dorsal fins of wild dolphins as they swim very fast. With plenty of variable conditions, the conservation work made us feel frustrated. Therefore, persistence and patience play an important role for success in this field of work.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me to participate in the Chinese White Dolphin Conservation project of Sanya and Zhanjiang and understand how conservation works in reality. Also, after working with some passionate professors from the Laboratory, I am deeply touched and want to contribute my knowledge gained from the EVMT curriculum to environmental work in the future!
News about our USSP trip in the website of Marine Mammal and Marine Bioacoustics Laboratory Sanya Institute of Deep-sea Science and Engineering: