Cambodia’s River Dolphins

A Irrawaddy River Dolphin, Cambodia

Cambodia’s river dolphins serve as a magnificent symbol of the Mekong River and its incredible biodiversity. The best place for anybody wanting to see this beautiful, elusive creature is a 190km stretch of the Mekong River between Kratie in Cambodia and Khone Falls near the border with Lao.

Although there is only a population of around 80 Irrawaddy Dolphins occupying this stretch of river, it remains the largest habitat anywhere in the world.

Irrawaddy Dolphin Facts

The Irrawaddy Dolphin is dark grey in colour with a pale underside and is a relatively small and shy species. It has small rounded dorsal fins and a rounded bowl-shaped head, reaching weights of up to 150 kilograms and lengths of 2.75 meters. The species normally live in groups of up to 6 individuals and is only one of 3 whale and dolphin species that occupies both fresh and marine water.

Irrawaddy Dolphins are excellent foragers, diving for 2 minute periods to find fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods. The life expectancy is approximately 30 years with females giving birth every 2-3 years. The calves have an impressive growth rate going from 12 kilograms at birth to over 35 kilograms in the first 7 months!

Flagship Species

The Irrawaddy Dolphin has recently been identified as a flagship species for the conservation of the Mekong River in Cambodia. As a species, they personify the health of the river for other species because they require clean water, large stocks of prey species and unobtrusive human activity.

The result is that any drop in the Irrawaddy Dolphin population is quickly analyzed so the source of the problem can be identified before it affects the Irrawaddy Dolphin and the plethora of other species occupying the magnificent Mekong.

This is vital not just for the dolphins but also for the millions of Cambodians who depend on the Mekong for its water and fish protein. With these resources increasingly under threat from the rising human population, it is more important than ever that the Mekong River’s biodiversity is maintained through flagship species like the Irrawaddy Dolphin.

How to See Them

Many travellers wanting to see the Irrawaddy Dolphin will head to the town of Kratie (pronounced Kra-cheh) in Cambodia’s north-east. However, although the dolphin populations move around depending on the river water level, the best place to see them is 20 kilometres north of Kratie in the village of Kampi.

There are approximately 25-30 dolphins living in the river near Kampi and the village is considered sacred to Khmer people because of its dolphin population. You can jump in one of the boats for $8-9 per person or take a walk on the riverbank and spot them from land.

If you take a boat, you will be taken about 200 meters out into the river where the captain will cut the engine and literally within minutes you will see crests breaking the water as the pods forage for food. It is recommended that you visit in the late afternoon when the dolphins are feeding most actively and the air is a little cooler. Kampi is a beautiful place to spend the day although if you are short on time the whole experience can take about 1 hour once you are there.

For those wanting to explore the area more, 2-3 kilometres beyond Kampi (about 35 kilometres from Kratie) is the town of Sambor. There is picturesque picnic area near the river, a 100-pillar pagoda and a turtle conservation centre, all worth a visit for the intrepid traveller.

On your way back to Kratie you can stop at the Sambok Pagoda for a fantastic sunset. The pagoda is built between two hills, Phnom Bro (Brother Mountain) and Phnom Srey (sister Mountain) and is home to a friendly population of nuns keen to practice their English with foreign travellers.

In recent years, with the financial help of tourists visiting the area and initiatives by conservation organisations such as WWF-Cambodia, the Irrawaddy Dolphin population has shown signs of increasing and recovering to even greater numbers.

For this reason, it is so important that visitors to Cambodia come and visit the area and see this beautiful elusive creature in its natural habitat. Without financial support, the local people are forced to fish the river with nets which inevitably leads to some dolphins getting caught.

With ever-increasing tourist numbers to Cambodia, more and more local people in the area are appreciating that they can earn an income from tourism, which signals a bright future for the majestic Irrawaddy Dolphin.

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