Saturday, April 26, 2008

Feeding program for dolphin in Shark Bay

At 7.35 am sharp, Nicky, Puck and Surprise approach the shoreline from the expanse of Shark Bay and make their way to the knee-deep waters by the beach. The three female dolphins are accompanied by adolescents and already know the "game" that is about to be played in Monkey Mia.

Tourists have gathered to feed them with fish just as they have done in this western part of Australia almost every day since the 1960s.

The name Monkey Mia is synonymous in Australia with dolphin feeding.

It's quite ironic that the dolphins have become such an attraction here as the name Shark Bay is not the most attractive in marketing terms for tourists.

Dolphin Bay would please the local tourist authorities much better but 12 different species of shark also live in these waters.

"Every third dolphin calf has scars and shark bite marks," says ranger Lyn Harding.

People have been feeding dolphins here for the past 44 years. In 1994, a government funded programme was instituted to oversee the feeding.

"You can count on one hand the number of days the dolphins don't appear," says Harding, while explaining how feeding works.

Only the mother dolphins are given fish. They receive a maximum of two kilos per animal per day.
"The calves get nothing. They should learn to look after themselves first."

The male dolphins usually remain further out in the bay with one or two other companions. Yet, dolphin feeding is not the only attraction Shark Bay has to offer visitors.

The area was declared a World Heritage Site in 1991 thanks - in part - to the presence of stromalites at Hamelin Pool.

Stromalites are sedimentary rock-like structures formed by colonies of micro organisms. They are located on the southern edge of the pool in shallow water.

The pool is part of the bay and was named after Emmanuel Hamelin who explored Australia's western coast from 1800 to 1804.

The stromolites' micro organisms resemble some of the earliest life forms on Earth, and because they produce oxygen, they are regarded as having helped in the evolution of higher forms of life.
Stromalites are very rare and exist in the Bahamas and here in Shark Bay.

If you observe one of these stromalites close to the surface of the water, you can see small bubbles emerging from the "living rock" - more oxygen for the atmosphere.

The water in Hamelin Pool is saline and provides ideal conditions for the stromalites to thrive. A species of cockle shell has also adapted to the conditions here.

When the molluscs die, their shells are always washed by the sea in the same direction and over the past 4,000 years a beach midway between the coastal highway and Monkey Mia has formed into a massive bank of cockle shells.

The bank is several metres thick and extends for dozens of kilometres.

Back at the beach on Monkey Mia it's 8.15 am and the show is about to begin.

A few spectators are pulled from the crowd by the rangers and fish held under their noses.

Lyn Harding tells them a little about the dolphins: they are 2.30 metres long and weigh 120 kilos. Some of the animals have been coming to feeding time since the 1970s.

Moored at Monkey Mia's small pier are two catamarans competing for passengers wanting to travel around the bay.

The "Shotover" and "Aristocat 2" specialise in visits to the dugong sea cows.

Shark Bay is home to the world's largest known area of sea grass.

At a depth of nine metres below the surface, 10 of the 60 varieties of sea grass can be found here - sometimes nine at a time in just one square metre.

And it's thanks to this variety that Shark Bay has a population of 12 000 dugongs.

Another very different way of looking at Shark Bay is provided by Wula Guda Nyinda Aboriginal Cultural Tours.

A bare-footed Daren Capewell sets off with his guests and cautions them: "Do not try to walk in the sand but on it."

For Capewell, humans "must respect the land and not just exploit it".

That's the main message of Capewell's trip to the sand dunes.

In the evenings Capewell provides an appropriately atmospheric background to this when he plays a didgeridoo in the light of the camp fire below a starry sky.

By 8.30 am the dolphins have been fed and returned to the open water.

The tourists begin dispersing over the beach while the rangers fill their buckets with fresh fish.
They know the dolphins will probably return two more times today to get their next ration of food.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"