Archive for February, 2011

The dolphins at Monkey Mia

February 13th, 2011

If you’re looking for an amazing encounter with wildlife at close quarters, and are heading to western Australia, plan your route carefully! Driving along the dirt road to Monkey Mia, close to the town of Denham, some 800km (500ml) north of Perth in Australia will lead to an opportunity for a truly unique encounter with wild dolphins. A small group of these marine mammals living in the area actually swim into the shore on a regular basis and allow themselves to be touched by people – an event that happens nowhere else in the world.

One of the dolphins at Monkey Mia.

One of the dolphins at Monkey Mia.

The origins of this strange liaison date back over 30 years, when one of the bottlenose dolphins living in Shark Bay started to drive fish into shallow water beneath the wooden fishing jetty, making it simple for the fishermen to make a good catch. They showed their gratitude by throwing some of the fish back to the dolphin. Gradually, this became something of a regular event, and Old Charley, as he was christened, became a local celebrity.

Other dolphins in the vicinity were soon attracted to this part of the bay where the pickings were easy, but it was not until 1964 that a teenager on holiday in the area persuaded an old toothless dolphin nicknamed Old Speckled Belly to take fish from her hand while she stood in shallow water close to the jetty. This dolphin then allowed herself to be fed by other people in a similar way.

By the time that Wilf and Hazel Mason took over the caravan park next to the shore in 1975, the dolphins had become regular visitors. News of their readiness to associate with people has spread, and today, the campsite has grown into a tourist attraction, drawing visitors from all over the world. Every day, the park ranger heads down to the shore around seven o’clock in the morning, when the dolphins are most likely to make an appearance. The eager crowd of visitors are organised into a line in the shallows and wait in anticipation.

The dolphins usually first reveal their presence by leaping out of the water further out to sea. As they approach the beach, the dolphins then readily accept the greetings from the people there, allowing themselves to be stroked and taking fish from the hand. Sometimes, mother dolphins bring their young, and so knowledge about this encounter has been handed down through the generations. Just as Old Charley had usually swum off by 8.30am, those visiting the beach today still adhere to his routine, so that if there has not been a sighting of the dolphins by this stage, they are unlikely to be seen that day.

Out of an estimated population of some 150 dolphins in the Shark Bay area however, less than a dozen will venture inshore to the beach. They can all be recognised by individual marks and nicks on the bodies and fins, allowing scientists to monitor their comings and goings, but no-one can yet explain as to why some are ready to associate closely with humans in this way. The fact that these dolphins do not swim away as soon as they have eaten suggests that they enjoy aspects of human contact, beyond the obvious attraction of food.