The dolphin bearing the weight of humankind’s trash

by: Dhivya Nair & Louisa Ponnampalam, PhD

Fanbelt — how one dolphin’s name came to be
The day was 2nd August 2017; a survey day around the waters of the Langkawi archipelago that started like any other for the MareCet team. With two additional volunteers onboard, Sandra, Jol Ern, and their skipper headed out on the boat in search of their favourite cetaceans. On a normal survey day, once a pod is found, the team quickly sets to work, collecting data on the animals, and recording details on the area they are in. Sandra (a Ph.D. student studying the social ecology of the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins) quickly picks up her camera to start taking photographs of the animals. The main goal here is to capture good photos of their dorsal fins for identification.

They follow the pod of 26 humpback dolphins for half an hour, the sound of the camera shutter continuously firing away. Sandra surveys the pod through her lens, when she suddenly spots another dolphin, swimming at a distance from the pod. She shifts her focus onto the lone dolphin only to be greeted by a heartbreaking sight.

Spotting seemingly fresh wounds, the dolphin had what looked like the fan belt of a boat engine wrapped around its body, the object digging into its dorsal fin and body skin. The sight was quite depressing and she quickly alerted the rest of the team. The team attempted to approach the dolphin to help it but to no avail. It was too wary of the boat and kept swimming away.

The team quickly contacted local authorities but was promptly informed that they had no resources for a rescue attempt of this scale. A rescue attempt like this would require multiple boats, ones larger than the survey boats used, to surround and capture the dolphin. The rescue would also require manpower and a specialized vet to aid with the dolphin’s wounds, both of which neither the team nor the local authorities had.

Fanbelt, as it was nicknamed (for obvious reasons) by the team, was spotted again a few days later with a larger pod. The object was still constricted around its body. Over the next few sightings, Fanbelt was seen to frequently leap out of the water, in what looked like attempts to dislodge the object from its body. At the end of the August 2017 survey, the MareCet team returned to their home base in Kuala Lumpur, bringing along with them heavy-heartedness as they wondered what would become of Fanbelt’s fate.

Fanbelt wasn’t seen again throughout 2018 and part of 2019. Thus, it was thought that the poor dolphin had succumbed to its injuries. The anxiety and agony of that possible reality left the MareCet team bruised with sadness and disappointment.

Not the only one
The incident concerning Fanbelt is not a standalone, and stories like that are unfortunately common. Scars, cuts, wounds, and/or gashes borne on the bodies of these dolphins are not an uncommon sight for the MareCet team. Nonetheless, it is just as distressing every time. Usually, these injuries give us a glimpse into what the animal had to suffer through, but seeing Fanbelt with the fan belt still stuck on and creating new wounds was a painful reminder of what these animals have to endure because of human carelessness and negligence.

Durable but indestructible
Now needless to say, where there are humans, there is bound to be plastic (and a lot of it at that). It’s almost as if plastic is a by-product of our presence. When we are out at sea on surveys, we are often juxtaposed with beautiful sceneries, reminding us of how fortunate we are to be in this line of research. We find ourselves easily lost in the splendour of such beautiful thoughts when suddenly all comes to a screeching halt when we encounter dolphins swimming through a sea of trash. There simply isn’t any consolation in the raging sense of disgust that comes from seeing streams of rubbish converging at water current lines and extending miles away for as far as the eye can see. What does the eye see — plastic bottles, straws, tin cans, bicycle helmets, clothes hangers, hair combs, dolls, and even a plastic chair! You name it, the ocean has it, the latest of which to join the “marine trash gang” being the disposable face masks which gained massive popularity due to a pandemic caused by one microscopic odd chap named COVID-19. Our team is constantly fishing trash out of the sea on each survey — there are days when one wonders whether we are at sea to research cetaceans or act as garbage collectors.

Forgot your sunscreen? Not to worry! The ocean probably has it and so much more. Pictured here is the pile of trash we collected in the span of five minutes. NOTE: Please do not follow as in the picture, where our ex-intern Joel uses up some of the mystery product found in this bottle.
Picture credit: Carolyn Grant

It was estimated that in 2010 alone, a whopping 4.8–12.7 million metric tons of plastic entered our oceans. Malaysia, currently ranks 8th in the world for the masses of mismanaged plastic inputs from land to sea. Marine debris can impact the dolphins and porpoises by way of ingestion, reduced water quality or having it stuck to their bodies with no way of removal, just like how it was for Fanbelt. How would anyone like it if they had to walk through their home while trying to avoid clashing into any trash item? Let’s take a moment and imagine that.

But, why should we care?
So, what does all this mean for the future of our marine mammals, and why should we care? Sure, it is heartbreaking enough to see dolphins with gashes and foreign objects clung to their bodies. But some may not understand the true significance of the issues at hand.

Dolphins are crucial to the balance of our marine ecosystems and as top predators, they regulate the numbers of their prey. They are also an important indicator of the health of the ecosystems they inhabit. For example, dolphins with visible skin-diseases and deformities indicate that the water they inhabit may be polluted and unsafe, which in turn may have compromised their immunity.

The ocean has long been treated as a giant dumping ground yet is often viewed as the gift that keeps on giving. There is a very common public misperception that our seas are large and vast enough to be able to take in all of humankind’s trash and that the resources we continuously extract will never run out. However, where the ocean is concerned, out of sight does not mean out of mind, and it shouldn’t be so. Our actions, whether it be increasing human pressures on our oceans or the irresponsible management of our waste, have detrimental consequences. For example, microplastics have now been found in plankton (the important base of our marine food web) and recently detected in human wombs.

An emaciated dolphin with a chronic skin disease and multiple severe lesions all over its body sighted in the coastal waters of Matang, Perak

Resilience of a species
Fanbelt’s initial predicament, of being stuck with a boat engine fan belt, was the combined result of increasing human activity and irresponsible disposal of waste. We got to see it first-hand with Fanbelt, but other dolphins are bound to suffer from a similar fate. We know this to be true from observations of so many other dolphins in our fields sites bearing similar, if not worse deep scars and wounds on their body.

At this juncture, you, the reader, may be wondering, what happened to Fanbelt in the end? Did the dolphin survive? The MareCet team was out on the water again, conducting a survey in September 2019, when Sandra shrieked in confusion, telling the rest of us onboard that she thought she saw Fanbelt. Dr Louisa kept her eyes peeled, and moments later, she too saw the purported Fanbelt dolphin. With their hearts racing, Sandra and Dr Louisa did not want to get their hopes up, at least, not until they had a chance to look at previous photographs and compare them with the ones taken that day. That evening itself, Sandra and Dr Louisa downloaded the photographs and searched through quickly to check on whether it was indeed Fanbelt that Sandra had seen earlier that day. Miraculously, Fanbelt is still alive, and better yet, with the fan belt no longer constricting around its body! How exactly it managed to rid itself of the horrible junk item is a mystery never to be resolved, but Fanbelt’s story is proof of one thing; that these animals are amazingly resilient. They continue to survive and reproduce in an environment that is highly impacted by human activities and polluted by our waste. They continue to adapt and live in a world that grows to be harsher every single day. If anything, the dolphins’ resilience should serve as a source of reason and obligation for us humans to fight for their survival and protection of their habitats.

Everyone can be an everyday hero
The human-induced threats faced by cetaceans and other marine life are highly numerous, without any quick fix or easy solutions. For example, it is not as if we can immediately stop all waste and plastics from entering our oceans, so where do we go from here?

What can we do as a society? Our biggest daily contribution to the problem here comes in the form of plastics. Plastics are everywhere and are almost unavoidable in our daily lives, even for those of us who try with the best of our abilities to do without it. But what we can do is to reduce our use of single-use plastics. Items such as plastic bags and drink bottles, straws, styrofoam containers and coffee cups are wasteful and incredibly harmful to the environment. The good news is, reusable versions are now easily available and affordable! (Here is a link to a map of zero waste stores in Malaysia: https://zerowastemalaysia.org/map ). It takes some will, but we can also make much better daily consumer choices by choosing foods with less individual packaging or packaging that have better recycling values. Additionally, we encourage everyone to do some research into sustainable seafood guides in your locality, to help ensure your seas aren’t being overfished and that the fishing practices are sustainable and dolphin-friendly.

Reusable versions of single-use plastic items can be easily found now! Why not try to put together your very own to-go reusable kit today?

Will you join us in our mission to protect marine mammals and their habitats? Or nevermind the marine mammals, how about protecting our collective future as a species? Being an everyday hero is as simple as starting with a commitment to stop using single-use plastic items, even if it’s just one type of item to begin with. Can you? Will you?

The MareCet team and some volunteers out on a survey along the coast of Perlis

The Langkawi Dolphin Research Project has been ongoing since 2010, with Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and Indo-Pacific finless porpoises being MareCet’s species of focus at the site. In 2019, the tropical waters surrounding the Langkawi Archipelago was designated as an Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA) by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to its importance as a key reproductive and feeding site for the cetaceans.

MareCet is the first and only non-profit NGO in Malaysia that is dedicated to the research and conservation of marine mammals in Malaysia. For more information about our work and ways to support us, please visit: https://www.marecet.org/donate

MareCet is an NGO dedicated to the research and conservation of marine mammals and their habitats in Malaysia.