The Dolphins of Bunbury, Australia
A look at the friendly dolphins of Bunbury, Australia.
Dolphins are the environmental flag-bearers of our times. As a symbol of our relationship with nature, they're popular with everyone from new agers to suburban grandmothers. The dolphin often appears as a tattoo, and is credited with high intelligence by scientist and layman alike.
Western Australia boasts two locations in which people can meet dolphins in the wild. The best known is Monkey Mia, in the Shark Bay region 850km north of Perth. This popular tourist destination revolves around the regular visits of the sea creatures.
However, less well known is the Dolphin Discovery Centre at Bunbury, a thriving regional city just 180km south of Perth. Bunbury isn't notable for its tourist attractions, acting more as a gateway for favoured destinations further south. However, the sheltered waters of Koombana Bay offer a dolphin experience unique to the south-west of the state.
The encounters started in an informal way, with the visits of bottle-nose dolphins who were fed by a local resident. However, in the 1990s the Bunbury Dolphin Trust was set up, putting the interaction on an official footing. Nowadays, the trust operates under strict regulations from the state government's environmental agency.
"The whole centre is based on sensitivity to the dolphins," says worker Geoff Osborn. "We're in their world."
The experience offered by the centre is characterised by a sensitivity to the sea creatures, and a hands-off approach by the humans who encounter them. It's the dolphins who make the choice to come in to the bay, usually in the morning.
During that time the beach area is controlled by supervisors and volunteers. There are several rules: onlookers are not allowed to swim with or touch the dolphins, use flash photography, or make loud noises.
Osborn says that visitors are accepting of the limitations. "We've had only one ratbag in the two years I've been here, trying to touch the dolphins. People nowadays are much more ecologically sensitive, and respect what we're trying to do here."
For a more close-up encounter, the centre operates swim tours during the warmer months. Visitors are taken out into the bay by boat, and briefed by a marine biologist and trained volunteers. Once in the dolphins' habitual waters, swimmers can take to the water and allow dolphins to initiate interaction. The emphasis is on the dolphins making the first move.
The centre's activities extend beyond its tourism focus, including scientific research. So far over 120 dolphins have been identified in the bay, distinguished by their dorsal fins and visible scars. The centre also operates a research boat, used regularly by marine biologists.
Though Monkey Mia is in more spectacular country, the advantage of the Bunbury experience is its easy access from Perth, and its proximity to the attractions of the south-west. Bunbury is less than two hours' drive from the state capital, and is also accessible by daily trains. From there, it's an easy drive or bus ride to the wineries and surf coast of Busselton and Margaret River.
The city also has attractions of its own. Not far from Koombana Bay is the Mangroves Boardwalk, enabling visitors to walk through wetlands inhabited by a range of native birds. A lookout on Marlston Hill gives sweeping views of the bays and Indian Ocean, and nearby Victoria Street has developed into a "cappuccino strip" populated by trendy cafes and restaurants.
However, the Dolphin Discovery Centre is the jewel in Bunbury's tourism crown. Its dolphin encounters offer an experience which engages our fascination with this intelligent ocean-going mammal, while reminding us of our responsibilities toward the world we live in. Sounds like the best of both worlds.
The Dolphin Discovery Centre is located on Koombana Drive, Bunbury, Western Australia. It's a two hour journey by car or train from Perth.
Entry (in Australian dollars): $6 adults, $3 concession holders and children, $15 family.
on 27 February 2008.
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