Round Australia Road Trip #13
Monkey Mia, in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, is one of those rare places where you don’t have to go looking for wildlife; the wildlife comes to you.
In the 1960s local fishermen began sharing their catch with the dolphins who lived in the bay, feeding them by hand at the shore. As word of the dolphins spread, visitors came to see them. In 1982 scientists began studying the dolphins and in 1985 a visitor centre was built. In 1990 the area was declared a marine park and since then the Department of Parks and Wildlife has monitored the dolphins and developed a feeding program that allows visitors to enjoy a close encounter with the dolphins while ensuring they remain wild and retain their hunting skills.
The dolphin interaction can take place up to three times a day, between 8 am and midday. Of course there’s no guarantee the dolphins will come to shore but in the last five years there have only been four days they haven’t appeared. We arrived at the reserve early and lined up with about 50 other people, bouyed by anticipation and hoping that the dolphins would grace us with their presence. When the first dolphin appeared in the bay the sense of excitement was tangible!
Before going to the water’s edge the procedure was explained. We were to line up at the water’s edge and only enter up to our knees when told to. We weren’t to touch the dolphins, a few people would be selected for hand feeding and we were to leave the water when asked. All these precautions are necessary for the well-being of the dolphins. They are fed up to three times a day and only receive a small percentage of their normal daily requirement of fish. This means the dolphins have to spend the rest of the day hunting and feeding naturally.
After we had entered the water, the dolphins came close to shore and swam up and down the line of tourists. With their eyes on the side of their head, dolphins turn sideways to see and I had the feeling these dolphins were inspecting us as closely as we were watching them. One park ranger explained the dolphins’ behaviour and characteristics while another kept close watch over both the dolphins and the people.
Park volunteers entered the water with buckets of fish and selected a couple of people to hand feed a dolphin. They were spaced along the beach so everyone had a great view. When the feeding was over we all left the water and stood on the sand. This was the signal to the dolphins that the feed was finished and they headed out to deeper water to their waiting calves.
If the dolphins return to the shore before midday, there is the chance of two more interactions and hand feeding sessions. If they come more than three times or in the afternoon, they can be observed but they won’t be fed again. On our day, the dolphins returned a second time within ten minutes.
By then the crowd had lessened and we were able to stand even closer: thrilling, magical and such a privilege.