A close encounter of the cetacean kind endears Paul Rush to a truly special place.
"The dolphins are coming!"
A cry goes up just as dawn breaks over Monkey Mia, a small seaside settlement on the remote coastline of Shark Bay, Western Australia, 900km north of Perth.
I stand at the water's edge with a group of dedicated nature lovers, absorbing the first rays of sunlight and marvelling at the sight of eight bottlenose dolphins finning inshore of their own free will.
Standing ankle-deep in water, I take a small bait fish from a bucket and place it carefully under a dolphin's long beak (the rostrum). In the blink of a cetacean eye, the fish is swallowed and the angelic Nicky looks up at me with an expression that seems to say: "Are there more fish in the bucket, cobber?" Nicky gave birth to baby Yule four months ago, so naturally she is focused on her maternal feeding responsibility.
A young woman steps forward to offer a fish to Nicky and it too is taken with miraculous dexterity. There will be just three more morsels for this dolphin or she may be tempted to linger at the feeding line all morning.
After 15 minutes, she receives some gentle human counselling to encourage her to go and feed Yule. This takes the form of a dramatic upturning of the bucket of water, a signal that the first breakfast sitting is over. She rolls over and nods her head, as if she is speaking to us in a common language.
Reluctantly she departs, her sleek, smooth skin glistening in the sunlight. I notice sharp cuts in her dorsal fin. At 31 years old, Nicky recently experienced her first tiger shark attack. Little Yule was the target, but this brave mum somehow managed to save his life. This self-sacrificing rescue was just another chapter in the story of the miracle at Monkey Mia (pronounced Mya).
Shark Bay is the largest bay in the Southern Hemisphere, forming a distinctive "W" shape midway up the Indian Ocean coastline. The bay supports a profusion of aquatic life: whales, sharks, dugongs, tropical fish, sea snakes, prawns and turtles. The foundation of Shark Bay's ecosystem is a vast meadow of sea grass, the largest in the world.
I return to the beach at 8.30am for the morning's second visitation, which has attracted a phalanx of dolphin admirers. I'm delighted to meet the family of a female dolphin called Surprise. All three generations are beach visitors, part of the clan of 1500 individuals that live in the shallow waters of Shark Bay. Shock is Surprise's eldest daughter. Dolphin reproductive organs are all internal, so Shock's calf has still to be sexed and named.
"Hello, we've got some excitement here!" A ranger cries as she intercepts 9-year-old female Tia, who likes to stir up the babies. "Dolphins are sensitive creatures, and from their pre-teen years they express their sexuality in a very touchy-feely way," she says.
Tia is now in her element, preparing for motherhood in a singularly dolphin-like way - stealing babies off their mums. Tia comes swirling inshore straight for a baby and slams on the brakes just before a collision occurs. The babies don't know technical stuff like evasive action, so they beach themselves, squealing in terror.
It is a wonderful privilege to interact with these tender creatures. For many travellers, this encounter is the highlight of their visit to Western Australia. For the dolphins it's a major coup - training humans to line up at the water's edge to feed them.
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