When recently a pod of 100 dolphins swam through Cu Lao Cham Marine Protected Area (MPA) off the coast of Central Vietnam, it got residents and park officials talking.

It had been a long time since people spotted marine mammals in the coastal waters. Development and fishing had driven them away.

“Maybe a big typhoon in east Asia sent the dolphins off course?” some wondered.

But not MPA manager Chu Manh Trinh: “I knew from community surveys that historically this wasn’t an unusual phenomenon, so I thought it was a sign that things were getting better.”

Trinh is considered a visionary marine conservationist who helped promote the idea of MPAs in Vietnam. When he first came to the Cham Islands 20 years ago as a fisheries scientist, the 2,000 island residents earned their living mainly from fishing and gathering corals. And they opposed establishing an MPA for fear of losing their livelihoods.

“When I first came here, I noticed peoples’ severe impact on the environment,” Trinh explained. “I kept asking them, ‘Why are you taking corals?’ ‘Why are you fishing?’ People looked at me like I was from Mars.”

Once the MPA was established, “they complained about it,” Trinh recalls, “and they wanted to put me in the ocean!”