Irrawaddy Dolphins of Bago

A “breaching” Irrawaddy dolphin

One day at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, Negrense marine biologist Manuel Eduardo “Mark” de la Paz found himself driving back home with a dead Irrawaddy dolphin on the trunk of his car. He had to respond to a beached baby dolphin in a coastal community in Bago City, Negros Occidental.

Irrawaddy dolphins are rare round-faced cetaceans found in marine and riverine habitats in Southeast Asia. They are named after Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River, which used to be called the Irrawaddy. In the Philippines, small populations of these shy, critically endangered dolphins also inhabit the Guimaras Strait. In 2010, the Irrawaddy dolphins were discovered in the waters of Bago and the neighboring town of Pulupandan, where they enjoy and feed on an abundant supply of fish, squid, and crustaceans.

Mark performed a necropsy on the baby dolphin outside his office at the University of Saint La Salle in Bacolod City where he teaches. Examining the lifeless cetacean, Mark only found milk in its stomach, and not a lot of clues pointing to its death. For a researcher so invested in the care and protection of Irrawaddy dolphins, the whole enterprise is nothing so impersonal, and is even heartbreaking.

Using a dummy dolphin, participants of a marine mammal stranding response training practice their rescue skills.

“When I see a dead Irrawaddy dolphin, I’m always heartbroken and disheartened,” Mark relates. “You want to conserve these dolphins as much as you can.” The heartache doubles for Mark if it’s a familiar dolphin gliding through the waters of Bago and Pulupandan, sites he frequented to study them for more than a decade. “Being there to serve them, you feel attached to them sometimes.”

What’s even frustrating, Mark reveals, is the difficulty to determine what kills these shy and gentle dolphins. Mark has gained a scholar’s breadth of knowledge and nuance that has humbled and honed him to probe more deeply before he could put a blame on anybody or anything apparent. “It’s so frustrating when people ask what the cause of a dolphin’s death is,” he admits. “I can’t answer because I can’t fully understand.”

Currently, Mark is pursuing a doctorate degree in Bioresource Management in Japan to be equipped in more research methods that may help him better understand Irrawaddy dolphins, or “waddies”. This way, “we may know more about their secret lives, and we get to appreciate them.” Mark’s peculiar passion traces back to his childhood interest in animals, especially large ones, like dinosaurs, whales, and dolphins. Stars aligned for him in 2010 when, the team of Irrawaddy dolphin researchers that he was part of as a Graduate student, discovered that these large animals also call the estuaries of Bago and Pulupandan home.

Waddy Watching. An Irrawaddy dolphin calf swims with two adults in the coastal waters of Bago.

Estuaries, the habitat of river-dwelling Irrawaddy dolphins, are ecosystems where fresh water and saltwater meet. Since Negros Occidental is rich with rivers, it also has a lot of estuaries where mangroves grow, where fish nurse and thrive, and where waddies wade through. Communities also benefit greatly from estuaries that provide them with fish for consumption and livelihood. However, since these ecosystems are muddy and not as aesthetically pleasing as white-sand beaches, they gain very little appreciation.

“But a lot of our estuaries have been destroyed,” Mark reports. The destruction of mangroves and conversion of estuaries into fish ponds ruin the biodiversity of estuarine ecosystems, and pose great risk on the existence of the already critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. According to his research team’s last count, Mark says there are only 12 Irrawaddy dolphins in the waters of Negros Occidental.

Photographers on the lookout for the shy Irrawaddy dolphin.

Mark then invites people to look more closely into the cultural value of estuaries by reliving childhood memories. “I believe all of us have memories of going for a swim in the waters of Punta Taytay in Bacolod,” Mark suggests, emphasizing the interconnectedness of these ecosystems that run through the province’s coastal towns and cities.

Negrenses also ought to be proud, says Mark, since the estuaries that the Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit are part of the Negros Occidental Wetlands Conservation Area (NOCWCA), which in October 2016 was declared a “Ramsar site”, or “wetlands of international importance”. The Ramsar Convention, also known as “The Convention on Wetlands,” is an inter-governmental environmental treaty established by UNESCO in 1971. This designation means exposing this conservation area to technical and financial support from organizations worldwide.

An Irrawaddy dolphin “spyhops” to spy on a boat.

Although opportunities from the international community are available, much of the effort to help conserve the integrity of estuaries, which Irrawaddy dolphins and countless other species rely on, must come from Negrenses themselves. Mark beams with hope that Negrenses, by their love for outdoor cafes, green spaces, and getting close to nature through ecotourism, are not as crazy about urbanization. “I just hope we enjoy ecotourism responsibly, conscious that we do not destroy our nature ecosystems.”

Mark also has a lot to thank the University of St. La Salle for. “La Salle has been my backbone, they support my research, and environmental protection is part of the institution’s advocacy.” As a concrete response to help address the environmental challenges that local coastal communities face, Mark discloses that the University of St. La Salle dreams of putting up a Biodiversity Center. If people in Negros help make this dream happen they would be contributing significantly and strategically to the protection of Irrawaddy dolphins and the province’s natural heritage, Mark shares. Details have yet to be discussed openly, but all sorts of help, from conception to construction, are welcome. Those interested to help may access the link, GiftEd (, and indicate via email ( that this is for the Biodiversity Center.

Perhaps, through the proposed Biodiversity Center, Mark can have better research facilities, like a proper necropsy table. But here’s to hoping there are no more cases of dolphin stranding, because waddies will have been healthy and happy in their cleaner estuarine home.

Text By: Kimee Santiago
Photo Credits: Mark de la Paz,  Kaila Ledesma-Trebol,  Jozette Hisu-an

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