We’re playing pearl diving. A heavily suntanned, retired couple bob around in the warm turquoise sea, talking about investments and stock prices. On the fine yellow sand some toddlers are building a sandcastle and three bikini clad backpackers lie on their towels reading fat novels. A little way out, there are small fishing boats, rods dangling hopefully over the side. A group of young men throw a ball noisily in the shallows. You could be on any beach anywhere in the world, except for maybe in North Yorkshire, where hypothermia would have set in by now. You could, if it wasn’t for the five dolphins swimming up and down the shore, playfully chasing minnows and weaving curiously around the delighted humans.
Monkey Mia is an unusual place. No more than a holiday resort really, in Shark Bay, one of only twenty-odd places in the world that meet all four World Heritage criteria for places of natural importance. One of the area’s biggest drawcards is the stromatolites, the living descendents of the earth’s earliest producers of oxygen. They’re not much to look at, rock-like creatures that bubble occasionally, but ex-geologist husbands find them very exciting. Scientists aside, most people come to Shark Bay for the stunning wildlife, dugongs, rays, turtles, sea snakes and the famous dolphins. In the 1960’s, a small caravan park was established at the end of a dirt track in a place called Monkey Mia. People would come to fish and the local dolphins soon worked out that if they hung around in the bay they’d get a free feed. Before long, people were coming to Monkey Mia just to feed the dolphins and their images graced postcards all over Australia.
I have to say that I was in two minds about visiting a place to feed dolphins, it sounded a bit cheesy and commercial, like a glorified aquarium. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. After it was discovered that unregulated feeding was altering the dolphins’ behaviour and causing serious problems to the population, the Department for Environment and Conservation turned the area into a reserve and took control of the feeding programme. There are now very strict no touching rules, areas which are for dolphin swimming only and continuous research into their behaviour. Only five mature females are ever fed and they’re only given a small snack, never enough fish to stop them hunting for themselves. Despite this, many more dolphins come into the beach every day. They know they’re not going to be given fish, they just like interacting with humans. The dolphins who come into the beach today are the children and grandchildren of the first animals to be fed. Dolphins spend a third of their day socialising, and these particular dolphin families have chosen to include humans in their coffee morning.
We continue our game of pearl diving, stopping now and then to watch as the beautiful creatures race past in pursuit of a long tom. The long tom lives to see another day but the dolphins don’t seem to mind. And nor do we.