Tawau’s Cowie Bay is Home to Irrawaddy and Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins

If you are in Malaysia, do you need to travel out of the country to see dolphins? Probably in the future you don’t have to anymore as we are about to reveal one of Malaysia’s potentially unique eco-tourism destinations – Tawau’s Cowie Bay – the home of Irrawaddy and Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins.

Cowie Bay is an oblong-shaped bay, approximately 50 km long and 10 km wide, aligned with its mouth facing southeast. The head of the bay is lined with extensive mangrove swamps and includes a complex of creeks and mangrove islands.

About twelve rivers flow into the bay from upland areas, mainly to the north and west, the main rivers being Sungai Merotai Besar, Sungai Kalabakan and Sungai Serudong. The island of Pulau Sebatik bounds the southern edge of the bay, the mangrove forest and mudflats continuing across the border into Kalimantan.

The discovery of the dolphins at Cowie Bay is not new. Locals and fishermen who live there are well aware of their presence. However, it was not until recently that Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s Research and Innovation Faculty setup a research station there to study these mammals. It is estimated that there are close to 30 Irrawaddy (Orcaella brevirostris) dolphins and not more than 10 Indo-Pacific humpback (Sousa chinensis) dolphins in the area.

The research station is located in Wallace Bay on Pulau Sebatik. The researchers usually spend hours under the scorching sun to test water quality, observe dolphin behaviour and hop onto fishing boats to record types of catch that come out of the bay. Leading the research unit is Dr. Saifullah A. Jaaman.

According to Dr. Saifullah, based on a decade of observations, threat to dolphins and other marine animals at Cowie Bay did not come from fishing activities carried out by locals, but from logging and oil palm plantations.

This threat is real and the last thing we want to happen is that these dolphins will no longer make Cowie Bay their home. Fishermen had reported that they don’t see these mammals often as they used to. We do believe that if this area is to be protected and gazetted, the chances of their survival would be much higher.

These dolphins are not unique to Sabah as they are also found in Sarawak. In 2008, the Department of Forestry and Sarawak Forestry Cooperative in Sarawak also established a protected area for Irrawaddy dolphins in Santubong and Damai (Kuching Wetland). The protection measures in the area include prohibition of catching or killing of dolphins and trade in whole or parts of them, and prohibiting the use of gill nets. We seriously think Sabah government should start similar effort sooner rather than later.

We do not have any photo collection of the dolphins at Cowie Bay so if you happen to know someone who has them, please let us know so that they can be shared with everyone here. We will certainly keep everyone posted if we have more information about the dolphins at Cowie Bay.