The Life and Legacy of a Wandering Whale
GUANGDONG, South China — After a video spread online of a whale swimming in Dapeng Bay, off the coast of Shenzhen, Wei Wei took his sightseeing boat and set out to take a look himself. His only passenger that day, June 29, was his daughter, who was supposed to be in her fourth-grade class but had stayed home with a stomach ache. She didn’t want to miss seeing such a rare animal, though.
After a while out on the water, a jet of mist suddenly shooting out from the waves and a loud moan sounding vaguely like a cow announced Wei had found what he was looking for. Less than two hundred meters away, he could see a rainbow glittering above the water — the whale coming up for air. His daughter was taking a nap, but leaped up the moment her father called her over. She stood at the railing, jumping up and down with excitement, shouting over and over, “What a big fish!” That night, she could barely sleep.
She wasn’t the only one in Shenzhen, a city of 17.5 million people, to feel a sense of excitement. For months, the whale’s presence clogged roads to the coast, inspired environmental clean-up campaigns, and even led to a temporary fishing ban.
The saga of Xiaobu, as the whale was named by the government of Dapeng New District, is similar in impact to the 17-month journey recently concluded by a group of elephants who, experts surmised, left their increasingly smaller habitat in southwestern China’s Yunnan province in search of a new home. That, too, served as a reminder of how human activity affects wildlife, and vividly underscored the importance of a UN conference on biodiversity to be held in China later this year.
The slender and gentle Xiaobu was determined to be a juvenile Bryde’s whale of about eight meters long. The species is understudied. On the IUCN Red List, Bryde’s whales are classified as of “least concern,” but how many live in the wild and in which direction this number is moving is unknown. China has included the animal in its highest level of national conservation.
The day after his first sighting of Xiaobu, Wei took Chen Bingyao, a professor at Nanjing Normal University’s School of Life Sciences, as well as two of his graduate students out to sea. Chen explains that research into Bryde’s whales is limited largely because of how rare they are. Though their geographical range spans the globe, they are rarely spotted in the wild.
Wei recalls how when his expert passengers finally saw Xiaobu, “their eyes all lit up.” At that moment, the bow swayed so much that even Wei was frightened, but Chen stood firm and began to film.
Two months earlier, Chen had just finished his fourth year of research into Bryde’s whales off Weizhou Island, in neighboring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. His previous investigations all concerned pods of whales, whereas Xiaobu was only ever spotted alone. “It’s actually easier to study just one of these whales on its own — that way, we can gain a better understanding of this species’ basic needs,” Chen says.
Sun Jing, a graduate student assisting Chen’s research, once encountered a pod of whale calves off the shore of Guangxi. These curious creatures would come up and swim circles around the vessel Sun was working on. When a young whale suddenly rushed up to the boat, she and the whale looked into each other’s eyes for just a brief moment. This delicate connection with a vastly different species sent a jolt of electricity into her heart.
Bryde’s whales are relatively sociable creatures who mostly live in pods of two or three. Sun is therefore somewhat worried about the solitary Xiaobu. The shallow Dapeng Bay isn’t considered a suitable environment for such a large animal, and a young whale living alone is vulnerable. Based on her body length, Sun speculates that Xiaobu hasn’t reached adulthood.
Wei has observed the young Xiaobu using buildings to catch fish. “The breakwater is like a wall that helps her block all the fish in one place.” To catch a meal, the whale cleverly uses her own shadow to drive schools of fish into the shallows and then dives in and out of the water in rapid succession. “She sweeps the fish right up with her mouth, like a broom.” Every day, Xiaobu eats about 180 kilograms of fish and other small sea creatures.
Every time Sun sees fish caught in Xiaobu’s baleen as she happily washes down her seafood buffet, she can’t help but think of a person with food caught in their teeth.
After an emergency meeting at Sun’s school on June 29, she and her classmates packed up their drones, cameras, fishing thermometers, and other equipment before following their mentor to Shenzhen that evening on a quest to find Xiaobu.
For weeks, Wei’s sightseeing boat became the researchers’ whale-spotting ship. Wei, a long-time fishing enthusiast, shut down his foreign trade business to buy a small vessel in 2014. He taught himself marine biology during idle moments at sea, but unfortunately the pandemic interrupted his plan to take the postgraduate entrance exam. Now, he was learning more than he ever could in a classroom.
Looking for Xiaobu is like playing hide and seek, Sun says. “There’s a certain amount of luck involved.” Sometimes, when she finally spotted Xiaobu, she would feel like the three-hour wait was just a short moment. Conversely, when the whale was nowhere to be found, 10 minutes felt like a lifetime.
On the vast ocean, whale finding mostly relies upon sheer observation. Sunglasses, cooling sleeves, and sun hats are indispensable. After taking to the sea, the plan was to follow the route along which Xiaobu had previously been spotted, keeping guard until this somewhat shy creature finally appeared. Experience is equally important. Both Chen and Wei looked out for Xiaobu by predicting the movement of schools of fish according to the direction and temperature of the tide.
“Usually, we can find her in a little more than 10 minutes, but at times it takes as long as one to two hours,” Sun says. When the boat stopped about 200 meters away from Xiaobu, she would take aim with her telephoto lens and begin snapping away. She was responsible for recording the number of times the whale rose above the water, the intervals between each appearance, as well as her hunting methods.
“Xiaobu always plays tricks on us,” Sun says. Sometimes, while using the drone to film Xiaobu, the crew initially found it easy to keep up with her, only for the whale to take a sharp turn and disappear without a trace. By the time she reappeared, she was already too far away to make any meaningful observations.
The length of this whale-spotting expedition completely took Chen by surprise. At first, he thought that Xiaobu might have just stayed in the bay for a few days. He suspected that she had lost contact with her mother or had some kind of physical defect. But after a while, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Xiaobu would continue to live in Dapeng Bay.
Many in Shenzhen hope that the story of Xiaobu will mark a new, peaceful chapter in the hitherto violent relationship between man and whale.
The evening after the first video of Xiaobu went viral, Xu Fei from Shenzhen’s Kuiyong Subdistrict Office sent out an urgent request for conservation volunteers, to which more than 200 people responded. The whale didn’t just draw a lot of attention online; droves of people flocked to the bay. Trips in coastal communities that used to take 10 minutes suddenly took an hour and a half, Xu says. In the face of this sudden whale-watching boom, volunteers were responsible for discouraging pleasure boats from going out to sea and preventing tourists from congregating, giving Xiaobu food, and throwing garbage into the water.
Zhuang Guangneng, a local travel consultant, volunteered to protect the whale almost every other day, but never actually saw Xiaobu. Sometimes, he put on gloves and climbed the rocks on the shore, picking up garbage. As someone who has lived by the sea since childhood, his motivation as a volunteer is very simple: “To clean up our ocean and make it more comfortable for Xiaobu to live here.”
While volunteers did their best to protect the whale from the shore, there are also guardians keeping watch at sea. On July 2, Dapeng New District established the “Cetacean Protection Taskforce,” patrolling the periphery of Xiaobu’s most frequented areas; while on July 3, the maritime conservation society Dive4Love went out to salvage trash bags, bottles, plastic cups and forks, and fishing nets. That day, they collected a total of 64 kilograms of garbage.
Shen Xiaoming, who participated in the garbage collection initiative, is the director of the Shenzhen Dapeng Peninsula Maritime Library. In 2017, he participated in the rescue of a sperm whale who appeared covered in discarded fishing nets in the shallows of Shenzhen’s Daya Bay. Although rescuers were able to cut the fishing nets in time and researchers used various methods to coax the whale into deeper waters, by the third day, it was completely stranded. To avoid inflicting additional trauma, on-site personnel made the difficult decision to give up and let the whale die as peacefully as possible. “During the autopsy, we discovered that the boundaries between its organs were blurred as a result of long-term hunger — that is, it had slowly starved to death,” Shen says.
Later, a local institute in Huizhou used this sperm whale as a specimen, but as time went by, Shen found that it had shrunk by nearly one meter and dried up. In order to represent the whale in its original state, he asked someone to make a to-scale sculpture. On July 16, in preparation for the possibility that Xiaobu would also eventually find herself stranded, Dapeng New District carried out a drill exercise using this very sculpture.
Zhuang, who participated in the drill, saw nearly 200 rescuers on the scene. This caught him by surprise: “When a whale is stranded, it needs the help of so many people.” He recalls that, during the drill, 25 volunteers sprayed the replica whale and maintained order, while others dug pits under it and helped pass a rope around it. The whale was then hoisted into an inflatable pool the size of half a basketball court, and everyone worked together to try and push it forward. “It was like pushing a train,” Zhuang says. After five minutes of pushing, it had only moved one meter. The process only sped up when machinery was brought in to help. After nearly two hours of arduous work, the crowd had finally succeeded in pushing the sculpture into the shallow waters, where it was lightly lapped by waves.
“If a stranding occurs, all you can do is to spray the whale with water, keep it protected from the sun, and wait for the rising tide to take it back out to sea.” Shen, who also watched the drill play out in person, hopes that things such as environmental conservation can be done ahead of time. But when he recalled how Dapeng New District used the sculpture of a dead whale to practice rescuing a live one, he felt an inexplicable feeling of melancholy and doom.
During typhoons, which regularly strike southern China during summer, Xiaobu usually goes missing for a day or two. But on August 7, she hadn’t been seen for four days in a row. The research team even wanted to pack up and leave. Chen, the professor, spent a whole morning asking local fishermen: have you seen Xiaobu? In his heart, he still felt that Xiaobu hadn’t left.
Fortunately, at 5 p.m., Xiaobu was spotted off Dameisha Beach, about 10 kilometers west of the whale’s habitual feeding zone. Owing to the typhoon, it wasn’t long before it started to rain. The group aboard Wei’s boat put on raincoats, covered the camera, and continued to record.
Shen, the library director, says that Xiaobu’s timing is “delicate.” Since May 1, about two months before the whale appeared, fishing was banned in the South China Sea and Beibu Gulf, which borders Guangxi and Vietnam. The fish had fattened up when Xiaobu began swimming around the bay, filling her belly. But the fishing season was scheduled to resume on August 16.
“The popularity of a Bryde’s whale can be much more powerful than the efforts of 10 popular science authors and 10 research institutes combined,” Shen says. He hopes to use the “power of a whale” to promote a ban on fishing within one kilometer of the shore, and then expand this area little by little. He has advocated for this matter for several years, with little success. In his view, the bay is of limited importance to China’s fishing industry, which increasingly relies on deep-sea catches and aquaculture.
Shen was drawn to marine ecology in 2011, when he went deep-sea diving for the first time during a trip abroad. Speaking of the various creatures in the sea, he can’t hide his excitement. “Take the example of corals: they look just like plants, but they are actually more ferocious than you think,” he says. “At night, they can eat enormous worms.” But, while diving in some waters in China, the coral he saw was mostly dead. As trawlers passed by, they’ve taken the natural shelter of many fish and roe with them: coral reefs have been destroyed by the iron rods of these boats’ nets.
A Bryde’s whale hardly needs a complicated ecological chain to survive: it mainly feeds on shoaling fish, such as sardines and red barracudas, as well as small crustaceans such as krill. But the soon-expiring fishing ban was threatening Xiaobu’s food source.
At noon on August 16, fishing started as usual. The boats dropped their nets into the water one after another, “surrounding Xiaobu on all sides, like a cage,” Wei recalls. When his boat arrived at Yantian Port at about 3 p.m., he saw about a dozen nets in the water. A small speedboat cast a net directly beside Xiaobu; though Wei yelled out and tried to stop them, the boat completely ignored him and sped off. At 7 p.m., the fishery administration sent boats to watch over Xiaobu. It was only then that Wei felt relieved.
But Wei still didn’t sleep well that night. During the day, the fishers use gill nets that usually extend about 1.5 meters deep. But at night, they use high nets. These nets have one end which is towed along the surface, while the other is weighed down to the sea bed with stones, forming a wall. “Even a person couldn’t escape them, unless that person could fly.” At that moment, a scene flashed through Wei’s mind: he pictured Xiaobu getting caught in the net and becoming more tangled the more she struggled, to the point that she couldn’t come to the surface for air.
Fortunately, at 8:40 a.m. the next morning, Wei saw that the fishing nets had virtually all been withdrawn. His WeChat group for local ship captains had received a notice regarding the suspension of fishing, and the fishery administration’s boats were stationed near the port to make sure no captains snuck out.
On August 18, the Shenzhen Municipal Bureau of Marine Fisheries officially issued a document establishing a temporary whale conservation zone spanning 64 square kilometers. The zone covered the waters of Dapeng Bay north of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong maritime border and would be adjusted according to Xiaobu’s movements and remain in place until she left the bay. Vessels involved with fishing and tourism are prohibited from entering this zone; container ships must travel in a designated channel at low speeds and make efforts to stay out of Xiaobu’s way.
The establishment of the restricted fishing zone generated certain practical issues. Wei says that forbidding all boats from entering the restricted zone elicited complaints from his counterparts in the recreational fishing and maritime sightseeing industry. He feels that if authorities could ban “high nets,” and if boats were to steer clear of Xiaobu, the only zone that would need to be restricted would be the waters where the whale is most frequently spotted.
Wei’s colleague Wu Jialiang thought that the new fishing season wouldn’t have much of an impact on Xiaobu, so long as trawlers didn’t get involved. “You must keep at least three kilometers’ distance when you see whales and dolphins. Professional fishermen know from their experience that there’s no fish to be caught in that place anyway,” he said. He suggested simply sending a ship to follow Xiaobu and establish a moving monitoring zone that is continually updated according to her movements.
A staff member of the Shenzhen Municipal Ocean Fisheries Bureau said that establishing restricted zones, as well as other measures, involved multiple departments, so the bureau couldn’t speak on the matter individually. Another bureau employee who did not want to be named stated that the government will provide certain subsidies to fishermen who draw in their nets. “It’s only fair: we have to ensure that local fishers stay in business.” However, the specific amount of the subsidy had yet to be decided.
But the whale conservation zone may soon be suspended. After Xiaobu hadn’t been seen for a while, the corpse of a Bryde’s whale was discovered near Shenzhen on August 30. The whale’s identity and cause of death are still under investigation. If it is confirmed to be Xiaobu, the fishing ban will be lifted.
But conservationists hope the two-month love affair between Xiaobu and the city continues to have an impact. On August 31, local newspaper Shenzhen Evening News published a commentary summing up how Xiaobu had raised people’s environmental awareness, titled “The story of the Bryde whale and Shenzhen will go on forever.”
Reporters: Chen Canjie, Li Kewen, and Chen Yulu.
A version of this article was originally published by The Paper. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Xiaobu swims in Dapeng Bay, Shenzhen, Guangdong province, Aug. 25, 2021. Courtesy of the interviewees)