Discover China: South China islanders guard whales' "dining hall"

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NANNING, May 18 (Xinhua) -- As the tide was still on the ebb at 6 a.m. on Weizhou Island in south China, Chen Mo, a marine biologist, got up, donned a wetsuit and grabbed his sampling tools, rushing to the intertidal zone of the islet's northern coast.

At 7:10 a.m., Chen set foot in the shoal, sporting a waterproof camera. "The best time to search for any kind of marine organisms in the intertidal zone is about an hour before the low tide," he said.

His research on the marine biodiversity of Weizhou is part of the fundamental works to help conserve Bryde's whales, a member of the baleen whale family that has been recently spotted off Weizhou after decades of absence.

Halfway through the zone, Chen said his biological clock, which has adjusted after long-term field surveys on Weizhou, has become in sync with the islet's tide cycle, as he naturally awakens nearly at the same time as the low tide.

Chen, 37, works for the Guangxi Academy of Sciences as an associate scientist in marine ecology. He has led the institution's marine mammal research team on Weizhou after noticing a rise in reported whale spottings in 2016.

For now, Weizhou and its surrounding waters consist of the only known area in China where Bryde's whales hunt for food, Chen said, noting that Weizhou is also the only inshore coastal water where the mammal's activities can be spotted, sometimes as near as only 300 meters from the shore.

Weizhou Island, located in the Beibu Gulf, is the youngest volcanic island in China. A national geological park was established on the island in 2004.

Whales normally migrate after food resources, and the nutrient-rich waters brought to the islet by ocean circulation in the Beibu Gulf keep attracting the Bryde's whales, noted Chen.

"So far we have found over 30 members of the herd near the islet," he said. "This place is like a dining hall. We must protect it for the survival of the species."

Whales are placed under state protection in China. Lin Deguang, director of the island's tourist zone administration, said previously that the city government of Beihai, which administers Weizhou, set up a protection zone for whales in July 2018 and that they will continue their efforts to protect marine biodiversity.

Since then, the use of styrofoam food containers and other non-degradable bags and wrappers were prohibited. Trash transfer stations and sewage treatment plants have also been built to facilitate better protection.

Lai Chaoyun, a 35-year-old islander and president of the island's tourism association, has witnessed the changes.

"We have 53 villages and a total population of 19,000. Household waste used to be dumped or burnt in a reckless manner. Now it needs to be shipped 21 nautical miles northbound to the mainland for proper treatment," Lai said.

Tourist visits to Weizhou reached 1.61 million in 2019, and more than 800 hotels and B&Bs are run on the islet, according to local authorities.

Apart from an economic boost, tourism also brings environmental costs, said Lai. "But the island's management commission has more actively regulated the hotel market for environmental protection, including stricter sewage discharge standards."

The tourism association also planned to limit hotel items to non-disposable ones only, Lai added.

Alongside the yearly moratorium from May to August, the local government also declared in 2018 a permanent moratorium zone stretching 6 km off the islet's coastline since Bryde's whales reappeared on the periphery.

"For two consecutive years we have found mother and baby whales hunting here. We cannot rule out the possibility that this area is the breeding place for whales," Chen said.

"Once confirmed, there will be stricter protection in the future," said Chen. Enditem

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