Did you know that dolphins are actually whales? Neither did we…

After having the most amazing day swimming alongside whale sharks, we didn’t think this week could get any better. That was until we remembered we were about to spend the rest of the week volunteering with wild dolphins at the beautiful Monkey Mia.

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In the 1960’s, fishermen would share their daily catch with some of the local bottlenose dolphins in the Shark Bay/Monkey Mia area.  Not long after, the dolphins started to come further in shore and would receive food from tourists. It didn’t take long for these friendly dolphins to become famous, at the top of everyone’s to visit list. However, as amazing as feeding dolphins sounds it needed to be regulated in order for the dolphins to stay wild and not depend on humans feeding them or worse, become over fed/fed inappropriate foods and fall ill.

In the 1980’s research and studies of the Monkey Mia dolphins started, followed shortly by the creation of Monkey Mia Reserve to protect the dolphins and their environment. Working alongside strict regulations, 5 female dolphins are now fed up to 3 times a day. Puck, Piccolo, Shock, Surprise and Kiya. Being fed 3 times a day may sound like a lot, but they can only receive a maximum of 10% of their daily food intake from us meaning they still have to hunt for themselves.

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The best things in life are free and that’s certainly true at Monkey Mia. Rather than paying your $12 entry fee and hoping to be the one of maybe 4 people to be picked to feed a dolphin out of 300 other people wanting the same thing, you can volunteer for 4 days – two weeks and spend every day in the water with these beauties.

The dolphins are wild, meaning they come and go as they please. This also means we had no control over how many dolphins would come in for feed 1, 2 and 3 or what time they would come. Regardless of when they came or how many came, the routine was the same. Start a 20-minute timer, allowing the rangers to give a talk on the rules and some background info on the dolphins at Monkey Mia. Make up all fish buckets for 5 all dolphins. Make up a bucket of fish to distract the pelicans with. Wait until the timer was up. Take our buckets down to the water and find our dolphin (each bucket had a name on). Stand ourselves next to the dolphin – sometimes this could be as deep as the bottom of your bum cheeks. Choose one person per fish (each dolphin would have between 2 and 4 depending on weight) to feed the dolphin. Empty our buckets of fishy water mmmmm to show the dolphins feeding was over and then head back to the volunteers’ HQ aka The Fish Room.

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On our first day, two to four dolphins came in for all 3 feeds. We were both a bit nervous, mostly of the huge crowd we were about to be thrown in front of. We had also been told by the ranger on our induction that people can give and contract diseases to and from dolphins including the common cold but also ranging to pretty serious, deadly diseases. This was a bit of a scary thought, but we weren’t actually allowed to touch them so the chances of this were pretty low unless the decided to blow all over you… But it was amazing. You can’t help but stare at this amazing creature swimming around your legs, nudging you if you’re taking too long to give her the fish.

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We learnt quickly not to be nervous of the crowd, they should be nervous of us (evil laughing). They relied on us to pick them out of the other 300 people. You have to be pretty ruthless when it comes to choosing. Every person has travelled a long distance to be here right now. Everyone wants to feed a dolphin. A majority of the people probably didn’t bother reading any of the guidelines in their handouts and are going to try and touch the dolphins. There will be some who will complain if you don’t pick them (I think some people get a kick out of complaining and will find anything to moan about – serial complainers). There will be people who pushed and shoved everyone out of their way to get to the front to better their chances of getting picked. Then there will also be the people patiently waiting, they would like the opportunity but don’t expect it -they deserve it the most in my opinion.

Tips for volunteers picking your dolphin feeders

Tip 1: Wear sunglasses – if people in the crowd can see your eyes and happen to catch your stare whilst scanning the crowd, it’s sooooo hard move your eyes over to other people.

Tip 2: Don’t pick people with their hands up or waving at you – these people are the pushers, they probably pushed everyone out of their way to get where they are and don’t deserve it as much as the cute little girl standing smiling quietly next to them. (mums will also make sure they tell you it’s their child’s birthday or point at them but we ignored them too)

Tip 3: Pick the people who aren’t expecting to get picked – the old lady standing at the back, yeah her, she will be so over the moon if she gets chosen and that’s such a good feeling rather than the kid who will have forgotten about it in 5 minutes.

Tip 4: When in doubt, go for a colour – if you are feeling overwhelmed by the number of people, think of a colour and the first person wearing that, pick them.

Tip 5: Don’t over think it – if someone catches your eye, unless they’re doing something they shouldn’t, just go with it.

Tips for being picked by the volunteers to feed the dolphins

Tip 1: Look modest – don’t stick your hand in the air, wave or call pick me pick me, not only does it make you look desperate but it also blocks the people behind you from standing a chance.

Tip 2: Wear bright colours – a bright coloured t-shirt or hat will make you easier for the volunteer to describe and more likely to catch their eye.

Tip 3: Don’t push yourself to the front – the volunteers choose from the front and back of the crowd so your position doesn’t matter.

Tip 4: Remember a mixture of adults and children will be picked.

Where were we……?

We only volunteered for 4 days, and the days went fast! We would work from 7.30 until 1 with the dolphins, head back to the Monkey Mia Resort. Don’t get excited about the resort part – it’s an overpriced holiday park and campground. We would do 1.5 hours work for the resort in order to get our stay there for free, jobs including sweeping, pulling up some weeds and getting rid of a few cobwebs, easy! As a volunteer you also get 50% off a boat tour called the Shot Over. The Shot Over offers a sea life viewing tour (dugongs, dolphins, turtles, maybe some sharks) for $99 with a free sunset cruise thrown in, minus 50% and that’s $49 for the two, bargain!! We booked our sea life cruise for day 2, and the sunset cruise for day 3.

The cruises were great, sadly we didn’t see any dugongs but we did see dolphins and some turtles! The sunset cruise was amazing, anyone who goes to Monkey Mia must go.

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So back to the dolphins. Our first day all 3 feeds happened, day 2 we got to feed twice but day 3 and 4 we weren’t so lucky. The dolphins only came in once on day 3 and 4, and only 2 for both feeds. This meant that the 4 volunteers would have to choose between themselves who got to feed. Day 4 was our last day volunteering, so we were pretty sad they didn’t come in. After first feed, we sat around waiting until 12pm hoping but they never came L. Ben was encouraged to put on a dolphin costume named Charlie (when I say encouraged he didn’t really need any encouragement, he had wanted to wear it for the last few days) to entertain the children – it was school holidays. So around we walked, hoping this would fool real dolphins, encouraging them in but it didn’t.

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We wanted to volunteer for longer. I think we could have stayed forever, but we were running out of money and really needed to head to Perth to get a job. Boring, back to real life. We decided to stay an extra night, and watch the dolphin experiences the following day. Just our luck, we were so glad we did…

Standing amongst the crowd, we watched the dolphins coming in for feed one. There were only 3 volunteers now. And 3 dolphins. Lucky s***s. And then swam in another dolphin. One of the rangers managed to spot us and waved for one of us to come in. Ben went. Then in came another 3 dolphins – 1 male and 2 daughters. These 3 don’t get fed, but they were all swimming around Ben, brushing themselves against his legs. It was amazing! I have to admit I was a bit jealous Ben went not me, but it’s still a pretty special thing to see. It was the perfect ending to a perfect few days!

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If you happen to be travelling up the Western Australia coast, you must stop at Monkey Mia whether it’s just for the morning or if you can commit a few days to volunteer. You won’t regret it!