Discovering dolphins in Koombana Bay

By Sue White 16 January 2012
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The interactions between friendly dolphins and people are carefully monitored in Bunbury, WA.

DOLPHINS MAY USE whistling and clicking to communicate between themselves, but ask a group of humans to try and entice them closer, and it’s obvious we prefer strategies that involve vigorous clapping, mouse-like squeaking, or bursting into song.

For tourists bobbing in the clear waters of Koombana Bay, near Bunbury, WA, there’s a strong incentive to provide entertainment that dolphins will approve of. Swimming with wild bottlenose dolphins is a highlight for visitors to the not-for-profit Dolphin Discovery Centre, but tours operate under strict conditions, and success relies on enticing a dolphin towards you of its own accord.

“We’re after interaction, not interference,” says Phil Coulthard, a marine biologist who has been with the centre for over ten years. “If they change what they are doing to come to you, that’s okay, but we don’t go to them,” he says.

The policy means there’s no touching, no swimming towards an approaching dolphin and most importantly, no guarantees. Nonetheless, there are so many dolphins in the area that success rates are typically high. In the first part of this summer, interaction rates hovered above 95 per cent, a reassuring figure for those who pay $185 for the three-hour experience.

Although it makes good sense to let nature decide the level of human interaction that the dolphins are comfortable with, there’s a second, compelling reason to uphold the strict rules in place. The centre’s objectives focus equally on research, education, conservation and tourism, with the latter widely acknowledged as funding the first three. With 60,000 visitors a year visiting the interaction zone (where visitors stand knee-deep in water for the dolphins’ impromptu visits to the shoreline), or heading out on a guided swim, the balance seems to be working.

Tourists get up close and personal with dolphins at the Dolphin Discovery Centre near Bunbury, WA. (Credit: Dave and Fiona Harvey) 

Studying dolphin relationships

Researchers – both formally and informally – have been observing the dolphins of Koombana Bay for decades. In 2007, Murdoch University began sending PhD students here to research different aspects of the dolphin’s habits as part of its Cetacean Research Unit. Located in a demountable shed onsite in Bunbury, researchers are never far from the action.

For Holly Smith, a Murdoch University student, studying the socialisation of dolphins in Koombana Bay has been enriching.”We knew that dolphins form different groups at different times of year, and that it’s actually the males which have the strongest long-term bonds. But I was interested in studying the females,” says Holly, whose work is funded by the South Western Marine Research Program, a collaboration between the Dolphin Discovery Centre, Murdoch University and government and industry partners.

Male dolphins are polygamists who travel in small groups (called alliances) year-round. But until Smith’s research, less was known about female socialisation. “I found females have long-term bonds too, but [female groups] only come together once a year, in the warmer months. It’s probably because they are nurturing the calves then and [the group] helps them defend against predators and male harassment,” she says.

Dolphin patrol

As well as attracting researchers, the regular presence of dolphins in Koombana Bay has nurtured a strong volunteer force. What began as observation on the beach by one local in 1964 now has grown to a volunteer patrol of over 150 people. Volunteers patrol the beach, note dolphin encounters and ensure tourist interaction remains compliant with Department of Environment and Conservation regulations. For some, it’s changed their experience of the town.

“I’d lived in Bunbury for 30 years, but I didn’t get down here until after my son was in a car accident,” says local Ray Dau. “He visited the centre as part of his rehab. I came down with him and had an instant affinity with the place.”

Now, Ray’s whole family volunteers here, and for the last four years, he’s spent at least two days a week onsite helping out. “Something about the dolphins has a calming effect on me,” admits Ray. “I just love their presence.”

To date, the dolphins clearly feel the same way about Koombana Bay. By tracking the markings on individual’s dorsal fins, Holly has identified over 250 dolphins within of the bay’s sheltered waters.

“It’s predominantly females in Koombana Bay – some are residents, staying year-round. The males tend to have a wider range and come and go more,” says Holly.

As for the humans’ habits, most come in the summer months, although the centre is open year-round. If you’re planning a trip, it’s worth noting that singing jingle bells works just as effectively in March as in December.

For more information visit the Dolphin Discovery Centre website.