Dolphins swimming up to the water’s edge and interacting with humans at Monkey Mia put this tiny dot on the vast WA coastline on people’s radar back in the 1980s. Long before the resort was built here, tourists would make the trek out here and wade out into the water to feed the dolphins. As more and more people arrived, Shark Bay authorities became aware that this activity was altering some of the dolphins’ natural behaviours. Some were ingesting types of food that were foreign to them, some were neglecting to find their own food, some adults were swimming in to shore for a feed and leaving their young behind, and so on. Today there are strict controls about how humans interact with dolphins so that people can still have a really enjoyable and informative experience without actually handling or overfeeding the dolphins. A maximum of three dolphin encounters with park visitors are allowed each morning and, although it is possible to be very close to the dolphins when they swim up to the water’s edge, no one is actually allowed to get that close that they can touch or feed them. That duty lies with the rangers and experienced volunteers. Only designated dolphins are fed this way, and those who are fed are carefully recorded in order to ensure no dolphin ever becomes in jeopardy of losing touch with its natural feeding behaviours. As dolphins are mammals, the rangers take care to observe COVID-safe protocols when nearby so that no harmful viruses can be exchanged with the dolphins.
A crowd had gathered at the beach by the jetty for the dolphin experience to begin at 7.45am. Thankfully the heavy rain predicted for today had not yet arrived. Within minutes two dolphins approached the shore, then two more. The rangers were miked up and gave a running commentary on what we were seeing. They identified and named each dolphin by the marks and shapes of their dorsal fins. Piccolo and Kiya were the two allocated for feeding today. As the dolphins swam back and forth along the water’s edge, within a couple of metres of the people watching, they rolled their heads to one side so that one eye was exposed and they were able to see what was happening. They continued to swim back and forth like this, all the time watching the crowd and watching the rangers for the signal that feeding would begin.
When a single fish remained in the feeding bucket, the ranger held up one arm to signal to the dolphins that feeding was about to end. The watchful eyes of the dolphins took note of this. As soon as the last fish was dispensed with, the rangers tipped the buckets and rinsed them. Upon this signal, all dolphins immediately turned and swam away from the shore and were gone from sight. The crowd on the beach dispersed.
The dolphins didn’t go very far, however. Rod and Cornelia went off on a trail hike and the dolphins swam alongside them for part of the way, within a metre or two of the water’s edge. Later, they swam back and forth right outside our beach view villas as we sat in our chairs on the back deck and watched them.
About half an hour after the first feeding experience ended, the four dolphins returned to the beach for the next one. This time there was a much smaller crowd of spectators waiting for them. As the dolphins put on their show, a lone pelican kept a constant vigil from close quarters, no doubt waiting for a tasty morsel to come its way. Just down the beach, an emu wandered up to the water’s edge. The wind was getting stronger, there was a chill in the air and the water was getting choppy. At 10am we had been booked to take a dugong observation cruise, but it had been postponed because of the bad weather on its way. But it didn’t seem to bother the dolphins, who stayed in the shallows swimming back and forth for about 20-30 minutes until once more they were fed and then promptly they were gone from view again. There was one more feeding session scheduled, but it began to rain so I gave it a miss. It had been a memorable morning.