Monkey feeding

Trip Start Jul 27, 2009
Trip End Nov 07, 2009

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Where I stayed
Denham Seaside Tourist Village

Flag of Australia  , Western Australia,
Friday, October 16, 2009

While in Western Australia, why not stay in the continent's westernmost caravan park? Denham Seaside Tourist Village makes this claim so it seemed as good a reason as any for choosing our campground. We didn't have time for the long 4WD track to Steep Point so, alas, we can’t say we actually made it to the most westerly place in mainland Australia.

In any case our campsite was a beautiful place, built on pristine shell-based sands and with magnificent views across Denham Sound to Dirk Hartog Island.  For the children, somewhat bored with the company of their parents, there were further attractions.  As Hilary says:

At Denham we made lots and lots of friends.  We played lots of games including, exploring, chasey, and hide and seek.  We also found a secret hideout that used to be some old steps and hid there when Mum and Dad wanted us to come and help and do jobs[Hmmm.]

Denham is at the centre of the Shark Bay World Heritage area.  This is an area of natural marvels, including those on land (like the Francois Peron National Park) and those in the water (like seagrass meadows full of dugongs, and the living stromatolites of Hamelin Pool).  In fact, Project Eden has fortified the entire Peron Peninsular against feral animals with a 3.4km electrified fence snaking across the base of the peninsular at its narrowest point.  Eradication programs have almost completely removed cattle, sheep, goats and foxes, and greatly reduced cats and rabbits. This has lead to successful reintroduction of three small-mammal species, although the tenacious cats are still preventing others from re-establishing themselves.

So amidst all this, what is it that has made the area truly famous and discussed as far away as the Horsehead Nebula?  Well, the opportunity to witness the feeding of scraps of fish to a 34-year-old free-loading dolphin called Nicky, along with four of her mates.

The wild dolphin feeding at Monkey Mia is, of course, a must-see on any tourist agenda.  Alec says:
You weren’t allowed to put sunscreen on your legs, otherwise the sunscreen would wash off and get into the dolphins eyes, and their eyes would sting and they would swim away.  While I was waiting for the dolphins, I was making dams and sand castles, and looking for crabs.. I found three.  One wasn’t very active because it was dead.  One was very active and I couldn’t catch it.  One was not so active, but alive, and I managed to catch it.  I put it into one of my aquariums that I made out of sand.  I wasn’t bored while I was waiting.  I liked seeing the dolphins. 

Dolphins began coming to be fed at the then little fishing port in the 1960s, following fishing boats for scraps and eventually coming to be hand fed by one local woman.  Unfortunately the natural feeding habits of the dolphins were interrupted once the phenomenon became a regular tourist activity.  One result was the poor survival rate of calves born to the hand-fed dolphins – they were not learning how to catch fish and so when weaned they had no way of feeding themselves.

Now, Monkey Mia had by this time turned from a tiny fishing port to a huge dolphin-based tourist attraction, complete with a large resort accommodation complex.  Really, the best thing for the dolphins would be to stop feeding them altogether, but that presumably would put a big dent in the tourist market.  So Parks staff have arrived at what seems like a satisfactory compromise.  About 20 individual dolphins (named and recognised by their fin markings) visit the beach, not all every day.  However, only five particular dolphins are ever fed, and they are never given more than of a third of their total daily fish requirement.  They are fed each day between 8.00am and 12.00pm whenever they happen to arrive, on no more than three occasions. Each of the three individuals receives pieces of fish from a few lucky tourists.  The whole thing becomes an interesting spectacle as much for the people watching as for the dolphins, with the masses lining up knee-deep from 8.00 a.m. onwards, awaiting the arrival of the stars.

Less contrived was our walk along the cliff tops from Cape Peron to Skipjack Point at the northern end of Francois Peron National Park.  From here we saw an abundance of wildlife in the sea below.  Alec recalls:

We saw turtles, manta rays, schools of fish, sharks, dolphins and dugongs.

While the rays were little more than dark shapes in the water, it was beautiful to see all these magnificent creatures in their natural environment, and we all had to start rejuggling our trip top-ten lists.  Simon had even further treats as he walked back alone to get the car, again related by Alec:

Dad saw dolphins herding fish up onto the beach so the dolphins could catch the fish. [Click the photo for more details.] He also saw a thorny devil.  I think it was getting ready for battle because it had all these spikes and spines all over it. 

We also had the treat of the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre, with its excellent interpretive displays on the local wildlife and history, including something of the early Dutch shipwrecks (more of which in a future entry).  It is a shame that this fairly small museum charges a bomb for entry.  The families we met in the caravan park included one with 5 kids, and one single mum  with two kids on a healthcare card.  Neither family’s travel budget could cover the entry fee.

Last but not least, we visited the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool, stones created by cyanobacteria.  This is one of only a few examples of living colonies worldwide, although for billions of years they were the earth’s dominant life form.  Alec is doing a research project on these, so you’ll read more about them soon.
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