National Geographic –
It’s 5:30 p.m., and several tourist boats linger in the middle of the Mekong River. A blood-orange sun casts a warm glow across the milky brown water, making it the ideal time to photograph the rare Irrawaddy river dolphins that congregate in deep, swirling pools. Not that these dolphins are particularly willing photo subjects, as the tourists on this day are finding out.
While marine dolphins often jump fully out of the water while swimming on a continuous path, the snub-nosed—and indisputably adorable—Irrawaddy dolphins, which grow to be up to eight feet long, will only partially breach the surface before diving back below. They may briefly pop up in one place only to reappear the next time in a random spot a few hundred feet away. The clicking of tourist cameras following each glimpse inevitably comes too late.
It’s an impressive disappearing act. Yet the most remarkable feat these dolphins have pulled off may be that they have not disappeared.
For decades, Cambodia’s Mekong River population of Irawaddy dolphins has verged on extinction. Once believed to have numbered in the thousands, the population began to plummet in the 1970s. During the violent reign of the Khmer Rouge and the years of war that followed, the dolphins were hunted for food.