Meeting the dolphins of Monkey Mia

Wander Woman Marie Javins finally gets to meet the legendary dolphins of Monkey Mia

7 mins

Getting up early was no problem in my little tent in Western Australia. Camping meant waking with the sun, to the sound of birds and zippers as other campers near my patch of grass made their way from sleeping bags to the ablution block.

I got through my morning ritual quickly today, showering, then breaking down camp before the sun was too high. I didn't want to end up sunburned and sweaty first thing in the morning, but more importantly, I had somewhere to be at 7:45am.

Tent, mat, and sleeping bag locked into my rental Hyundai, I headed out of the Monkey Mia campground and past the visitors centre and over to the beach along Shark Bay, to what was designated on the map as the “Dolphin Interaction Area”.

A long line of tourists stood along the seashore. As a single person, it wasn’t hard to find a spot to melt into the crowd. Everyone waited together.

For what? Soon, wild dolphins found their way towards us in the crystal clear bay. We could see them perfectly as they swam and frolicked in the aqua water.

“In the past, too many dolphins were being fed,” explained a park volunteer, immersed in water up to her thighs. “But the babies weren’t learning to hunt for themselves, so now it’s just done a little.”

That answered my questions about the ethics of this. Haphazardly feeding wild animals seemed like a bad idea, and as fun as it would have been for us tourists, seemed ultimately destructive.

She pulled a fish from a shiny metal bucket and held it out. A dolphin politely took the fish while swimming past. The sightseers all gasped. This looked like so much fun and we were all a little jealous. Everyone wanted to be a park volunteer at that moment. Some of them were allowed to participate by holding out fish for the dolphins, but only if they weren’t wearing sunscreen. Most of us had to settle for watching dolphins. Which was a reward all its own.

Dolphins were only fed for about 15 minutes, and then the bucket of fish was empty. We all dispersed, including the dolphins. I went wandering about the beach for a bit, but started getting antsy. I wanted to put today’s drive behind me.

I jumped in my hire car and headed down a scenic route past the small town of Denham, then back out to the main highway – two lanes with three-section "road trains", massive trucks that nearly blow little Hyundais clear off the road when they pass at the overtaking section.

Yes, that was a bit scary.

I drove for hours – Highway 1 in the middle of Australia's west coast is straight and desolate, slicing through a beautiful but brutal hot, dry, and sunny environment. Imagine a map of Australia, and then, for this leg of, put me right in the middle of the west coast. I was glad to have a brand-new zippy rental car instead of one of the dilapidated rental camper vans I saw in all the caravan parks. Plus, petrol prices were nuts – at AUS $5.69 a gallon, I'd take a Hyundai and a tent over a van any day

At each town, I thought about stopping to camp but nudged myself a bit further. First, at Northampton, I thought, "Let's just get to Geraldton, at least get back into the world of phone signals." Then, at Geraldton, I stopped in a fast food chain restaurant for an iced coffee, but I wasn't tired yet, so I thought I'd try to make it all the way to Cervantes, my scheduled stop for the next night. Cervantes was near Nambung National Park, where I wanted to see the huge limestone desert pillars called Pinnacles. Thousands of these pillars stood high over the sands, and had stood there for thousands of years.

I didn't make it to Cervantes. I had pulled off of Highway 1 and was wandering along the coastal road when the sun was just hovering over the horizon. I'd seen enough warning signs about stray animals that I didn't want to travel after dark in kangaroo country. I pulled into Jurien Bay Tourist Park at the last possible instant before the sun went down.

I started reading all the signs on the door.

And it was closed.

I panicked for a minute, standing in front of the locked reception office. Then I remembered people arriving after dark at my first campsite, the first night near Perth. They'd arrived after the office had closed.

Ah. There it was. A sign with instructions for late arrivals. 

"Pick up this phone. Someone will answer."

Someone did. A cheerful, friendly Australian woman, a little older than me, showed up a minute later to check me in.

“How far are we from Pinnacles?” I asked her.

“Less than an hour. Only 20 minutes to Cervantes, then it’s past there.”

Great. Id get in and out of the scenic drive around Pinnacles before the sun was too high in the sky in the morning.

"Is there anywhere to eat dinner around here?"

"Yes, there is a pub across the road. Better hurry though. It's Sunday night in a country town – they might close if no one is there. Set up camp after dinner."

I parked my car in my site – a lovely grassy site away from all the caravans – and hurried over to the bar.

The cheapest main dish on the menu? $25. That was more than my campsite! But as the caravan park woman had pointed out, this was a country town on a Sunday night. I’d better take what I could get.

I sucked it up and ordered.

"Would you like something to drink with that?"

"Tap water is fine. Really.”

Perhaps I needed to reconsider cooking for myself at night.

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