There's an unusual tourist drawcard on Western Australia's Coral Coast, writes Stephanie Holmes

Breakfast at Western Australia's Monkey Mia is likely to be interrupted by dolphins.

You'll be sitting quietly at the resort's beachside restaurant, sipping on a flat white and sleepily chewing on your muesli when, next thing you know, everyone around you will hurriedly leave their breakfast and line up on the beach.

If you didn't know better, you may think it was some kind of drill relating to an emergency or a natural disaster. But actually, it's the reason most of the tourists are here at the RAC Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort on the Coral Coast. Filling human bellies comes second to making sure the area's resident pod of bottlenose dolphins get their breakfast.

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The beloved marine mammals started coming close to shore in the 1960s when a local fisherman and his wife fed them some of their catch.

Realising they were on to a good thing, the dolphins started turning up every day. It wasn't long before the news spread and tourists started turning up too.

Things used to be a lot more lax. Visitors could pat the dolphins, tickle their bellies, and swim with them. They could buy a bucket of fish and feed the pod as much as they would eat.

In 1982, American researchers Richard Connor and Rachel Smolker arrived at Monkey Mia to learn more about the behaviour of the pod. Their research quickly expanded to the wider Shark Bay dolphin population, which led to the establishment of a long-term study carried out by a team of scientists from Australia and around the globe.

The research not only gave the scientists a window into natural and learned dolphin behaviour, but it also allowed them to learn how best to protect these wild animals.

 Monkey Mia beach at sunset. Photo / Tourism Western Australia
Monkey Mia beach at sunset. Photo / Tourism Western Australia

Now, Monkey Mia dolphin interaction is tightly controlled by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, along with a team of researchers who monitor the experience and provide guidance to the team of friendly rangers who work on site.

They have come up with a daily routine that straddles the delicate line between keeping the animals safe and keeping the tourists coming back.

Dolphins are fed only in the morning, only five are fed at any one time and they receive only 10 per cent of their regular daily intake, encouraging them to hunt the rest of their food.

Only on the rangers' cue can we approach the water, we mustn't get too close to the dolphins waiting in the shallows, and we can't touch.

These rules don't detract from making feeding time a huge drawcard for visitors.

Age doesn't discriminate when it comes to the excitement of the experience. Whether it's a tiny Spanish toddler or a white-haired British grandma, the smiles are the same when witnessing these beautiful creatures up close.

Once feeding time is over, we all trudge back up the beach and continue our breakfast.

The dolphins linger for a while longer; others from the pod will arrive at various points across the morning and they, too, will be fed, giving as many visitors as possible the chance to experience it.

Days at Monkey Mia begin with dolphins and the wildlife encounters continue until the sun goes down. Emus pad ungainly through the resort, past the small chalets and in front of the cars and coaches driving in and out; pelicans will join you while you relax on the cushiony white sand beach; stingray will glide underneath you as you float in the super-salty waters.

Dolphins in the shallow water at Monkey Mia.
Dolphins in the shallow water at Monkey Mia.

We're more than 900km north of Perth, and it feels like it - the journey to get here along the rugged Batavia Coast took two days, albeit with plenty of interesting stops along the way. I'm travelling with AAT Kings on a guided holiday with a group of Aussies, Kiwis and a couple of Brits, expertly looked after by travel director Margaret. The group is of advanced years but everyone has a lust for life and a love of travel — at shared meals, conversation is of previous trips and much-loved destinations. In the comfort of the air-conditioned,Wi-Fi enabled coach, the journey is long, yet enjoyable.

After our morning dolphin encounter, we're taking advantage of the optional experiences available in addition to the itinerary; some are off out into the Francois Peron National Park on a 4WD tour, others are seeing the beauty of the region on a scenic flight.

I am taking the opportunity to get out on the water of the Shark Bay Marine Park, a world heritage site known for its marine life — including more than 10,000 dugongs, as well as humpback whales, turtles, sharks and tropical fish.

We sail on the Shotover, a beautiful catamaran under the control of Captain Quinn, a handsome 20-something salty seadog with some killer one-liners to keep his guests entertained.

"Harder work than a missus, this boat," he says, sighing, while setting the sails, and later when three female volunteers stand up to help, rather than the two he asked for, he gives a rueful shake of his head and says; "This is my problem, I always pick too many women."

But jokes aside, he knows his stuff - he's from a family of sailors and has taken over the boat from his dad, who used to race it competitively. On our morning cruise we're looking for dugongs — the so-ugly-they're cute sea-cows that frequent the reserve. After an hour or so of sailing gently in the warm May sunshine, Quinn spots one due starboard and we change direction for a closer look.

The dugong surfaces every 10 or so minutes, just long enough to elicit cheers of delight from the watching tourists, then is gone again, feeding on the seagrass that is in abundance in these fertile waters. After a couple of hours freetime lazing around the resort, we're back on board for a sunset cruise. The warm breeze, gentle music playing and the growing golden light as the sun drops lower to the horizon, all do their bit to make this sunset sail a truly memorable experience. The wine probably helps too.

Back on dry land, I sit for a while longer as the light disappears, lost in reflection on a couple of days spent in this magical place that's worlds away from anywhere.

 Dolphins in the shallow waters of the Shark Bay Marine Park.
Dolphins in the shallow waters of the Shark Bay Marine Park.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

operates its 787-9 Dreamliner year round between Auckland and Perth.

Details: Explore the Batavia Coast, famed for its shipwrecks, and admire wildflowers in Kalbarri National Park on AAT Kings' 6-day Monkey Mia Dolphins & West Coast guided holiday from Fremantle to Perth. Departure dates from May to November, priced from $2450 pp, twin share. See helloworld.co.nz for more information.

Further information: See westernaustralia.com.