From The Pinnacles, near Cervantes, we drove all the way past Geraldton and up to Hamelin Pool (to visit the stromatolites) before finally arriving in Denham – a full 820km north of Perth. The actual road trip was fairly uneventful until the last 150km where we saw a couple of kangaroos hop across the road just before being stopped at a routine police road-block. I got breathalysed and can happily report that I passed with a perfect score! I take my role as designated driver very seriously, but I couldn’t help but wonder to myself if they had a breathalyser test for liquorice as we had consumed a whole packet during the day!
Our overnight stop was at the Shark Bay Hotel Motel in Denham. A cheap and cheerful place: The hotel was cheap in comparison to many other hotels and motels we had researched for our trip to Australia (a bargain $87 for the room per night) and the locals were most certainly cheerful! Here, we were treated to an Aussie Barbie and the local Western Australian beer – Swan Draught. Heaven. (Although, we actually think it was roo-steak on the menu… which is not quite to my liking) It was in the bar at this restaurant that we also got our first taste of Aussie Rules… How cool is this game?! I’m totally hooked already 🙂
The next morning we got ourselves up relatively early and drove the 24km to Monkey Mia – part of the Shark Bay World Heritage Site (since 1991) and the place where Bottlenose Dolphins visit and choose to interact with us mere humans.
We arrived on the beach to see a couple of fins in the distance, coming ever closer to the shoreline. It wasn’t long before a group of 13 dolphins – mothers, with their calves in tow, were all swimming right up to us!
Two ladies came out to give all sorts of information, much of which has escaped my memory already, but several things did manage to get trapped in amongst the grey matter.
Here, the dolphins choose to interact with humans. Although they might come up to you it is prohibited for you to reach out and touch them; the reason being that you might receive a sharp nip if the dolphin felt threatened in any way. Remember – these are WILD dolphins – not some Sea World swimming-pool dolphin.
There are three “feeding” times during the morning from about 7am until noon. Specific feeding times are dictated totally by the dolphins. If they don’t feel like it – they stay away.
We arrived with perfect timing for the second feeding of the morning – just before 9am. We were lucky that we hadn’t rushed for the earlier feeding – as some 170 people were crammed like sardines onto a relatively tiny strip of beach. We were in a group of no more than 30, proving my personal theory that you don’t have to be first to win!
Dolphins have been coming to this location since the 1960s. Every mother brings her calves, both male and female, to visit people at the beach. The males, when they grow up, tend to remain further out to sea, but the next generation of females keep coming back – introducing each and every new calf, that is born to them, to their adoring public. Currently, there are three generations of the same family who visit.
In the past, the local fishermen would share their catch with the dolphins upon their return from sea. The feeding location has migrated from the slightly deeper waters to the jetty and now to the beach. There were more dolphins than there were people to feed them – so the dolphins adopted certain tactics to try and convince the folks that they were somehow cuter than any of their fellow dolphins. Effectively, they learnt how to beg! Nowadays, to try and convince the dolphins to stop practicing this party trick, the volunteers have been instructed to totally ignore them…
There are currently 5-7 dolphins that accept fish from people, but only 5 were happy to eat at the time we were visiting. The other 2 are thought to be pregnant. The understanding is that pregnant dolphins will not eat dead fish in case this causes food poisoning. (Or perhaps nausea? – Do dolphins suffer morning-sickness, I wonder?)
Once a female dolphin becomes pregnant and gives birth for the first time, it is often the case that she will be in the continuous cycle of either pregnant or lactating for the remainder of her life-time.
Something I was shocked to hear was that female dolphins suffer a fair amount of “domestic abuse” from their male counterparts. As if being continuously in the family way, and dodging all the sharks that the bay is aptly named after wasn’t enough. One of the dolphins was particularly shy about showing the one side of her body as it is quite scarred. Poor thing. You’d never have thought that dolphins would know shame or embarrassment – but there she was, deftly turning and flipping around such that you couldn’t, or wouldn’t see a thing.
Anyone can volunteer to work with the dolphins and help maintain the general upkeep of the Monkey Mia Precinct for a minimum of 4 days, up to a maximum of 2 weeks. You can imagine how long the waiting lists might be. I am seriously contemplating this (one day!), but for now I had to be content with watching as 5 other volunteers brought out metal buckets, each containing 4 fish.
The buckets are held such that they rest on the surface of the water. Each dolphin knows her own bucket and they all line up to await their fishy morsels. Then the best bit: each volunteer picks, from the anticipating crowd, someone to feed the dolphins!
Directly in front of us was a dolphin named “Peck” – I was seriously hoping that perhaps Gregory Peck might have been her namesake – and not because she liked to bite 😉
First up, three little people. The two boys both got to feed Peck a fish each, the little girl seemed more than happy just to be up close to watch it all happening.
Second up – a lady in pink.
Third up – my husband gets picked (does the volunteer think she’s getting away with that one??) – But he’s wearing socks and shoes…
He nominates ME! Woo hoo! Even though I was more than happy trying to photograph these gorgeous creatures, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to actually feed them. I was delighted 🙂 I threw my camera at my husband, with instructions to just “point and shoot”!
Alas, he is not a natural photographer – and almost forgot to press the shutter, being too happy just to watch me feed Peck. It was a beautiful moment – even if it wasn’t absolutely caught on film. It is something that I will remember as a superbly serene moment in my life, forever.
Soon after feeding, all the dolphins regrouped with their calves (who had been frolicking in the background all the while) and slowly retreated back out to deeper waters.
It was milking time, which is only possible further out to sea. At the beach, the calf cannot get under its mother in order to access the mammary slits.
My mission to visit the Monkey Mia dolphins was a complete success. Now, where is that volunteer application form…?