Since I was young, dolphins have always been one of my favourite animals, due to their vast intelligence and their playfulness. There are an abundance of dolphins in Western Australia and I couldn’t give up the opportunity to volunteer with these magnificent animals in a paradise location whilst gaining experience working with them in the wild!
The volunteering placement is located in Bunbury, WA, around 2-3 hours from Perth. It is a very small city with its main attraction the Dolphin Discovery Centre on Koombana Beach. The centre has a small aquarium with some of the local ocean life found along the coast of Western Australia, a cafe and of course a gift shop. The main attraction to the centre is the wild dolphins that visit the beach nearly everyday.
Koombana beach is situated on a small bay where three rivers enter the ocean (bringing a large fish supply), with calm waters (as it is sheltered) and crystal clear waters. The dolphins are resident here with about 150-200 dolphins living in it with the researchers and volunteers having identified around 100 different individual dolphins there.
There are two types of volunteers at the dolphin centre, long term volunteers who come in around once a week and stay there for many years (mainly retired people living in the area) and the short term volunteers who work 5 times a week for a minimum of 6 weeks, they tend to be international (mostly Germans this year!) and visiting the area for a short length of time (this was me!).
Everyday volunteering involved being on rotation. There are three rotations, the discovery room (where the aquarium is located), the boardwalk (keeping watch for dolphins) and the volunteer room (for your break). Each rotation was half an hour long. You were either scheduled to a morning rotation (7:30 to 12:00) or afternoon rotation (12:00 to 4:00). The best deal was a morning rotation as this was the best time of day to spot the dolphins and then meant you had the rest of the day free to do other things.
The dolphins tend to come in every day, however if they do not feel like coming in they certainly will not! Some of you may have heard of Monkey Mia, which is similar to the Dolphin Discovery Centre but they feed the dolphins at a certain time which encourages them to come in then. We do not feed the dolphins like this, in fact they are only fed 350g (they usually eat around 250-300kg a day) of herring in total, and only around 10 of the dolphins do we actually feed. If they decide to visit they get 2 herring and if they go then come back again to the zone later they receive one more herring. This is not the sole reason they come to visit, though, as they are very curious animals. A regular visitor called Eclipse is 11 years old and loves the interaction zone, showing off to the visitors. The way that the Dolphin Discovery Centre is operated is to make sure that we have as minimal impact on the dolphins as possible, therefore not interrupting them as wild animals. Therefore under no circumstances are they to be touched or encourage to visit a visitor by them splashing or putting their hands in the water (which they may think is food and therefore bite).
By working at the Discovery Centre I learnt so much about dolphins, including how they sleep, their anatomy, and the different hunting techniques as well as so much more! But not only did I learn about the dolphins I learnt about the different animals kept in the aquarium (which most of the visitors tend to grill you about!). For example I can know answer most questions about the Gloomy octopus (did you know they have 9 brains and 3 hearts!) or the loggerhead turtle (only 1 in 1000 loggerheads make it to maturity) or even the sea star (who shoots out its stomach to eat and digest the food). These are just a few of the many facts that I have learnt and memorised! My brain is certainly now filled with a load of random information about animals specific to Western Australia, I do hope that one day it comes in handy!
I was also a feeding assistant to the animals in the aquariums once a week, which involves food prep and the actual feeding of the animals along with data collection on the aquarium animals. I assisted Bob on a Tuesday every week and he was the one who taught me so much of what I know now! Even though the day is much longer (from 7:30 to 4:00) it was still fun! Food prep was always interesting as it involves cutting up raw squid, fish and prawns. The smell of the fish on your hands does not go away until at least 3 showers. Bob was very kind and always let me feed the loggerhead turtles (which he knew I loved), among with the sea horse, the crayfish (which if you have never seen eat is incredibly cute) and the long neck turtles. After he started to trust me I got to feed the octopus which is such a weird feeling! The octopus smell and feel with their suckers on their arms, so like to wrap all up your arm to taste what you smell like (I know very weird). My first time doing this the octopus, named inky, felt the whole way up my arm to my shoulder, which was pretty cool and terrifying at the same time as I thought she would never let go at one point! Whilst doing the feeding, it is also your responsibility to make sure all the tanks are working and all the data about what each and every animal has eaten is kept up to date. I have to say I felt very important doing this!
The 6 weeks I was working there went so incredibly fast and I can barely believe that I have already finished my time as a volunteer! The centre closes in April for construction works to be done and a whole new centre is being built thanks to a grant they have been given. It will look fantastic, however I hope that the family feel will not be lost! If you ever plan on coming to Western Australia I would highly recommend making the way down to Bunbury and having a look at the beautiful dolphins and ask the volunteers as many questions as you can as this is how I learnt so much!
Well I am now half way through my travels, meaning I only have another 3 months left! How fast it is all going!
“Some of the greatest minds on Earth live in the seas.”
The website of the Dolphin Discovery Centre – http://dolphindiscovery.com.au