I looked out over the calm, unbroken surface of the water, waiting for a sign of life. But the river remained still. I scanned the surface again, my head turning left, then right. And then I saw it.
The surface broke, as if bubbling up from within, and a glossy, round head emerged—just a few shades darker than the grey waters of the river. It was the extremely rare Irrawaddy river dolphin. As the surf split, the dolphin half-turned towards me so I could see his white underbelly, while lifting one fin in the air as if in greeting; its mouth split into an uncanny smile. And although it was at a good distance—I was looking through a powerful zoom lens—I was so pleased and grateful to see the adorable little guy that I raised my hand to return his greeting.
A series of steely grey bumps emerged and then disappeared behind the first one and I realised I was looking at a family of four or five, which is truly a remarkable sight.
Remarkable because this was no ordinary dolphin. It was the elusive, endangered, river dolphin. While they’re playful, like sea dolphins, these freshwater dolphins have round heads instead of tapering and look a little like Orcas.
They don’t leap out of the water, but rather bob their heads in and out. They spurt arcs of water when they’re playing and you can hear their chattering and clicking sounds carrying across the water. But they’re disappearing. Fewer than 100 remain in Cambodia’s stretch of the Mekong river. By some estimates there are only about five left upriver in neighbouring Laos, where they are considered ‘functionally extinct’.
The Cambodian government has put several measures in place to protect these charming creatures. They are in great danger from fishing nets and dynamite fishing, both of which are not permitted near their habitats. Even tourist boats are protective, cutting their engines miles from the dolphins so as not to intrude or agitate. Fortunately, tourism provides an incentive to protect this unique species, not only to the locals but also to the Ministry of Tourism, who are trying to promote dolphin-watching in the region.
The main place that serves as a springboard for dolphin-spotting is the charming, north eastern town of Kratie. Although not popular with tourists—yet—Kratie is friendly and convenient with French colonial architecture and many homestays, restaurants and bars along the waterfront where you can pass a pleasant evening. You can take river cruises on the Mekong to see floating villages, go to the Kampi waterfalls or climb Sombok mountain for spectacular views. But by far the biggest draw for this part of the country is the Irrawaddy dolphin.
The best time to see the dolphins is early in the morning, around 7 a.m., or just before sunset. Cambodian sunsets are lovely on any given day, but the Mekong is vast and calm and lights up dramatically as the sun sets. A $15 tuk-tuk ride will take you from the town of Kratie to the Kampi waterfront where, for $12 per person—$10 if there are more than three people—a boatman will take you out to where the dolphins tend to hang out.
To get to Kratie, a seat on a bus from the central market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, will cost about $10 and take six to seven hours. Kratie lies between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap—the closest town to Angkor Wat—and the chance to see these extraordinary dolphins makes the detour more than worthwhile.