The Last of Southeast Asia’s Irrawaddy Dolphins

Anyway you look at it, the numbers aren’t good for the Irrawaddy dolphins. Despite conservation efforts, the Irrawaddy dolphins in southeast Asia are on the brink of extinction. A recent death dropped the number of dolphins in Laos down to six. With five deaths in 2015 and just one birth so far, there are only about 85 dolphins believed to be left in the Mekong River, according to the WWF conservation group. An additional 63 dolphins are remaining in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River. Even with these depressingly dwindling numbers, it’s still possible to get up close and see the amazing animals in Kratie, Cambodia.

On the mekong river

About 15 kilometers north of Kratie, boats can be rented with a captain to go out and see the dolphins (one or two passengers costs $9 a person, three or more is $7 a person). It was just the captain of a modest boat and I as we went down the Mekong River, past tiny islands and an undeveloped waterfront. He told me there were about 30 dolphins left in this protected area demarcated by stone pillars. After a kilometer or two of no dolphins in sight, I became a little worried I wouldn’t see any. This boat ride was the only reason I stopped off in Kratie en route to Mondulkiri and I prepared myself for disappointment.

Just then, the captain cut the engine and we drifted along. He pointed to the water and I couldn’t see anything. All of a sudden, a dolphin with its distinctive snub nose surfaced for a second. The captain paddled along the dolphin’s path and more and more began to surface. It was hard to get a good look at them as they were a bit elusive, but they came up for air often and the captain was good at predicting their behavior. He rarely used the engine and instead paddled to set us up with the best view.

I can’t say how many different dolphins I saw, but they’d often come up in groups of three or four. Usually, I’d hear them surface and quickly turn around just in time to see them going back underwater. Snapping a good photo was difficult, and these pics were the best I could manage. Still, the sunset was amazing and we had no problem seeing the dolphins every couple minutes for about an hour.

According to the WWF, the main threat to the few remaining dolphins is their accidental capture by fishermen. Decades ago, the dolphins were inadvertently in large numbers killed explosives used by fishermen. That dangerous method has thankfully fallen out of practice. The dolphins are highly regarded by locals and each death ends up making it in the national news. With all those challenges facing the dolphins, I can say that the boat ride is definitely worth the price of admission.

The Details

The launch point to see the Irrawaddy dolphins is 15 km north of Kratie in the town of Kampi. It’s difficult to miss, as there’s a big statue of the dolphins and plenty of signs marking the area. The road isn’t in the best shape but can be handled by a motorbike. Alternatively, you can rent a tuk-tuk to get there for about $10 round trip. 





I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?