Volunteering with Dolphins

This is a guest post by Catherine Curnow, a ZigaZag reader who is currently volunteering at the Dolphin Discovery Centre in Bunbury.

dolphins

Picture by Catherine Curnow

Volunteering at Bunbury’s Dolphin Discovery Centre

If you’re visiting Western Australia make sure you take the time to visitBunbury’s Dolphin Discovery Centre, it’s only a 90 minute drive South from Perth.

Your entry ticket is valid for up to three visits so it also represents excellent value for money. A tourist from London told me recently that the centre is one of Western Australia’s best kept secrets and that we must get the word out to the world about what a fabulous place it is to visit!

After procrastinating for many years I started volunteering at Bunbury’s Dolphin Discovery Centre in January this year.

The Bunbury Dolphin Story

My first memory of Bunbury’s wild dolphins was as a child in the 1970’s. We could purchase a fish from the legendary Mrs Smith, and feed it to a dolphin in Bunbury’s Leschenault Inlet. Obviously we have since learnt that feeding the dolphins isn’t a good idea at all, because it makes them dependent on humans. Mrs Smith is believed to be one of the first people in Bunbury to elicit the dolphins’ trust in humans, and encourage them to interact with us.

Why I started volunteering with dolphins

One of the people who motivated me to start volunteering was a young woman who was teaching me to sing. Ferne was backpacking around Australia and although traveling on a shoestring budget she still managed to find the time and energy (between singing lessons and other jobs) to volunteer at the Dolphin Centre. Her enthusiasm was infectious and she had a wealth of information about Bottlenose Dolphins.

As it happens I had completely underestimated how exciting, enjoyable and rewarding this volunteering experience would be. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting volunteers and visitors from all over the world, learning about dolphins and other marine life, not to mention the exhilaration of interacting with dolphins really close up.

How many dolphins come into shore?

According to Jan, the Volunteer Coordinator, there are some 40 to 50 dolphins in Koombana Bay each day. Of these 8 to 10 visit the Interaction Zone regularly, and another 8 to 10 visit infrequently.

There are over 200 identified Dolphins  between Binningup and Busselton in the South West of Western Australia. February and March is both mating and calving time for the dolphins as they have a 12 month gestation period. So far this year 3 newborns have been seen in the bay. Most years they would expect to see at least 8 to 10 new calves.

Baby Dolphin called Cookie

You can imagine my excitement when I first saw a ten-day-old dolphin calf. It had wrinkly skin (called neonatal folds) and its dorsal fin was still a bit floppy. Its beautiful mother, Cracker, brought her to the interaction zone and proudly showed her off. The joy of this interaction is indescribable! To think that a wild animal would be trusting enough of humans to bring their new born so close is astonishing.

Dolphins

Cracker and Cookie by Jan Tierney

The volunteers are invited to vote on a name for the new calves and this new one has been named Cookie.

6 Things I’ve learnt about dolphins

dolphins

Picture by Catherine Curnow

  1. Dolphins are conscious breathers. This means that they don’t breathe automatically, as humans do. They are able to rest one side of their brain whilst keeping the other side alert to enable breathing. They are thought to have mini power naps this way as opposed to long periods of sleep.
  2. Female dolphins can control their ovulation, and they choose when they will conceive. They can mate with many partners, dolphins don’t have a single partner for life.
  3. Dolphin Calves don’t suckle milk from their mothers. The mother ejects its milk (a paste-like substance) close to the calf’s mouth. If their milk was liquid, like human milk, it would dissipate in the water before the calf could drink it.
  4. Dolphins are very curious creatures, and seem to enjoy interacting with us as much as we do with them
  5. In Australia It is illegal to harass, touch or feed dolphins. The penalty for doing so can be up to $100,000, or two years’ imprisonment. Source: Regulations 16, 17 & 18 of the National Parks and Wildlife Act (Protected Animals Marine Mammals Regulations 2010)
  6. Dolphins can live from 35 to 45 years of age. Female dolphins nurse and care for their young for several years and won’t conceive again until their calf becomes independent.

Volunteering at Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre

dolphins

Gera and Davy, volunteers from Holland at the Dolphin Discovery Centre in Bunbury by Catherine Curnow

FERNE’S STORY

I became obsessed with dolphins at a young age and was determined to become a trainer or work with them somehow, so I trawled the internet looking for opportunities. Most things I found were volunteer experiences which were very expensive. I finally came across the Dolphin Discovery Centre in Bunbury.

At first I thought the interaction with them was not as exciting as more touristy places, because you couldn’t touch the beautiful creatures,  but later I realised that’s exactly how it should be. Dolphins shouldn’t be interfered with or tamed just for our pleasure. The fact that the ones in Bunbury choose to interact with people for their own amusement is even more intriguing than if they were trained and in captivity.

I’d been considering coming to Australia for a working visa for a while and as soon as I worked out the timing I had no other thought then getting as close as I could to this wondrous place. So I  flew to Perth and jumped straight on a train to Bunbury. I thought there would be some kind of waiting list or difficulty level in actually becoming a volunteer but the Centre is really geared and is mostly able to give anyone who wants the chance to volunteer the opportunity.

BRIAN’S STORY

After moving from Fremantle to Bunbury Brian started volunteering at the Dolphin Discovery Centre. He enjoys seeing the wild dolphins so close to shore, and seeing the joy on the visitors’ faces. He also enjoys talking to the visitors. He says he’s been volunteering for 7 years, and still loves it.

MANON’S STORY

Manon is from France and has been in Bunbury for a few months. She volunteers once a week. She finds it’s always a pleasure to see the dolphins and meet volunteers and visitors. The experience has taught Manon a lot about wildlife, and also helped her improve her English.

The Dolphin Discovery Centre welcomes new volunteers. If you live locally you’ll be asked to commit at least 4 hours per week for six months. International volunteers are asked for a commitment of up to 20 hours per week for six weeks. Some exceptions are made for international volunteers who can’t afford the full six weeks.

Thanks Catherine for a lovely story and so much information! I hope it will inspire readers to volunteer not only at the Bunbury Dolphin Centre but perhaps at dolphin or other animal centres all over the world!

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please drop us a comment in the reply section below. We love to hear your thoughts and Catherine will be replying to comments too :)

And if you love dolphins as much as we do, then here are some links to further posts for your enjoyment.

For more about Dolphins

Weird and Wonderful Facts about Dolphins,

New Baby Dolphin

Bunbury Dolphins and why a dolphin encounter can be life changing

Where to spot dolphins in Queensland – via my travel blogger friend Annabel Candy at Get in the Hot Spot in her post 15 Things to see and do in Hervey Bay

Video

Swimming with Dolphins in the Cocos Islands (This fab video was taken by my travel blogging friend Deborah Dickson-Smith from Little Nomads

 

If you’d like to Volunteer with dolphins in Bunbury, then contact the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre.

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Comments

  1. A big thanks to Catherine, people who supplied photographs (thank you Kim too), and the Volunteers at the Dolphin Discovery Centre for this fabulous story.

    If you’ve read this far, please leave a comment – it would be so great to show our support for volunteers, and organizations like this!
    Johanna recently posted..Volunteering with DolphinsMy Profile

  2. Great story Catherine. Good on you for volunteering at the Dolphin Centre. Another thing to add to my list of activities when I retire…… My first close interaction with dolphins was at Monkey Mia years ago when you could still camp on the beach. My husband reckoned I grew fins in the week we were there. We only had to walk into the water and the dolphins swam up to us.
    We are so lucky in Bunbury that we get to see wild dolphins. It is really special when they swim along with your boat. I have even had that happen a couple of times when we were dragon boating.
    Life Images by Jill recently posted..Playing with food – a food photography journeyMy Profile

  3. Catherine says:

    Thanks for your lovely comments Jill. I haven’t been to Monkey Mia, but would like to go there some time. When you do get to volunteer at Bunbury’s Dolphin Discovery Centere I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I do! I too could happily grow fins and swim with the beautiful dolphins every day!

  4. Muza-chan
    Twitter:
    says:

    So cute, I love dolphins…
    Muza-chan recently posted..Want to dress up like a Geisha?My Profile

  5. I loved reading all the fascinating facts about the dolphins. I didn’t realize it took so long before the babies were independent. Also so very interesting of how they feed milk to the babies. Now I can’t wait to learn more.

    My sons worked in the sound and laser lighting department at Florida’s Sea World, so I will be discussing these facts with them too.
    Neva @ Retire for the Fun of it recently posted..How To Start A BlogMy Profile

  6. Carey says:

    Great story Catherine, I learned a lot reading your article.

  7. I loved reading Catherine’s Guest Post. Surely everyone loves dolphins – especially when they choose to interact with us freely. Although we now know that they should not be fed, I wonder if they would come in such numbers today if Mrs. Smith had not started feeding them. Maybe the information that the locals were a friendly lot (via feeding) has been passed down the Dolphin Grapevine :) I am not saying they come in wanting food, but that they are happy to interact because they know it is OK to do so from their parents. I would be very tempted to volunteer if I lived in the area!
    budget jan recently posted..The Strangest Food I’ve Eaten While Traveling or a Cup of Pink Pickled CabbageMy Profile

  8. I love dolphins and truly enjoyed this post. I particularly enjoyed reading “6 Things I’ve learnt about dolphins” It’s great to know about places like this where people can interact with dolphins in their natural habitat. It’s also good that know that touching dolphins is illegal in Australia. It makes me sad to see dolphins put in captive environment so people can pay to touch them. Kudos to those wonderful volunteer at the Bunbury’s Dolphin Discovery Centre.
    Marisol@TravelingSolemates recently posted..South African Safari ExperienceMy Profile

  9. Thanks for your lovely comments, Neva! yes, Catherine’s post was great, and such interesting information – watch this space, I think we are getting big on dolphins!

  10. Thanks Muza-chan!

  11. I can see you volunteering here Jill, but more so I’m waiting for the photos you might produce!

  12. Loving the fact that you and Jill might have the capacity to grow fins to swim with dolphins!

  13. I think you’re right there Jan, you know what comes first, the chicken or the egg sort of situation. We are just so lucky that they come in so close in Bunbury.

  14. Thanks for popping by Carey :)

  15. Thanks for popping by Marisol :)

  16. Catherine says:

    Hi Jo. I wasn’t able to reply to the comments above. It wouldn’t let me reply individually, as I did with Jill above. I then tried to do a long comment responding to each person and it said I had too many comments already awaiting moderation, and wouldn’t let me post it. I’ve saved that in a word document, so I’ll try to post again later, or reply to everyone when/if I can. I’ve tried on both my iPad, and desktop PC…

  17. Maybe it will let you post now, Catherine. There must have been a gremlin in the works :(

  18. Next stop Monkey Mia I think for you Catherine!

  19. Great story, thanks for sharing this local info. I think I’d quite like to be a dolphin, many partners and choosing when to ovulate sounds much more my style. Might have to wait until my next lifetime though.
    Seana – Sydney, Kids, Food + Travel recently posted..Escape + Explore – Aussie Family Holiday FridayMy Profile

  20. Catherine says:

    Thank you for your comments everyone. I can’t see how to reply individually on this post, as I have with previous ones, sorry. Muza Chan, yes, I love dolphins too. They are such graceful and gentle creatures, in spite of their large size. Neva, I’m glad you enjoyed learning some new facts about dolphins. Some visitors to Bunbury’s Dolphin Discovery Centre are disappointed because our dolphins don’t perform on demand, or appear at designated times (sometimes they choose not to come in to visit at all) . I think we (humans) have been kind of spoilt by places like Sea World, and our expectations of wild natural dolphins are a little overinflated as a result. Jan, I’ve also wondered if it’s Mrs Smith’s legacy which continues today, with so many dolphins coming in to the Bay. However I’ve also learnt that Koombana Bay is quite shallow and protected, so it’s probably a naturally attractive habitat for them, too. Apparently dolphins are naturally curious creatures, so they seem as happy to “check us out” as we are to see them. And, as you suggested, it is incredibly exciting to see And, as you suggested, it is incredibly exciting to see the mother dolphins confident, relaxed and trusting enough to bring their precious babies in to show us. I believe they DO learn from their mothers that it is a safe place to visit. Marisol and Seana, I also appreciate your positive and encouraging comments. Thank you again everyone, and I’d dearly LOVE to share the Dolphin Discovery experience with you, should you be lucky enough to visit some time.

  21. Thanks for replying to everyone Catherine. I love all your observations along with the extra hints and tips :)

  22. Volunteering at Bunbury’s Dolphin Discovery Centre sounds like an amazing experience. I can see why people would return again and again. I like that the dolphins are wild and that it’s completely up to them whether or not they want to interact with humans. Thank you for those 6 Dolphin facts as they are all new to me, especially the one about not touching them. I had considered doing a dolphin experience in South Australia, and I don’t think I realized that no touching was allowed. (I eventually didn’t go.) I hope that the Discover Centre is able to continue its great work.
    Michele {Malaysian Meanders} recently posted..Chiang Mai’s Golden Temple on the HillMy Profile

  23. Catherine says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Michele. I hope you’ll get to interact with some dolphins, even better if you come to Bunbury to do so! Here you can do an eco tour on a boat, or go on a swim tour (both in summer months up to the end of April from memory) or stand in the water, about thigh deep and watch them when they come so close that you COULD touch them. I’m glad we’re not allowed to touch them, but it is very tempting to reach out when they come so close….

  24. Thanks Michele, it’s great of you to comment. I shall be a bit slow in getting back to you over the next few weeks, but please don’t give up on me!

  25. Wanda says:

    Thanks Catherine for this terrific guest post. I really enjoyed learning more about these extraordinary creatures and about the people who give of their time to keep them safe and thriving in our local waters. Lovely to hear of your memories from the 1970s!
    Wanda recently posted..Pearls of Wisdom for Keon and the Rest of UsMy Profile

  26. Catherine says:

    Thank you for your lovely comments Wanda. They truly are incredible creatures! Best Wishes, and happy blogging :) Catherine

  27. Ingrid says:

    Very interesting post Catherine – they are the most gorgeous creatures and we are so lucky to have them in our midst

  28. Catherine says:

    Thankyou for your kind comments, Ingrid. Yes, we are certainly very lucky to have them right where we live!

  29. It was a fabulous post wasn’t it, Wanda! And thanks again Catherine. It touched a chord with lots of folks.

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