Thursday, January 23, 2014

Monkey Mia: Dolphins, Dugongs, and a Sea Snake

Monkey Mia is a private facility located along Shark Bay in Western Australia.  Shark Bay consists of about 900 miles of winding coastline, which creates a lot of bays sheltered from the ocean.  Underwater in these bays grow fields of sea grass.  This environment creates a great place for large amounts of marine life, including sharks, rays, dugongs, sea snakes, and bottlenose dolphins.

Have you ever heard of a dugong?  We had not.  Have you heard of a manatee?  Dugongs are similar to manatees, but are a bit smaller, have a different shape tail, and live only in the ocean (manatees spend time in both the ocean and in fresh water rivers).  An estimated 10,000-15,000 dugongs live in Shark Bay -- the largest population of dugongs in the world.   According to one of the rangers at Monkey Mia, this is about one-tenth of the world’s dugong population.

Dugong photo from Julien Willem on Wikipedia
Dugong we saw on a boat trip in Shark Bay
Now about that tail… take a close look at it.  Does it look like a mermaid tail?  It is thought that sailors a long time ago believed they saw mermaids, but were actually seeing dugongs!

Dugong tail
Dugongs are very big and eat sea grass.  Because of their diet, they are sometimes called sea cows.  Dugongs can get to be almost 10 feet long and can weigh up to about 1100 pounds.  They can live to be about 70 years old.  Females have one calf after a year of pregnancy.  They can hold their breath for about 6 minutes before they need to surface and breathe air.  As they live in only shallow water, don’t move very quickly, and reproduce slowly, they have been easy targets for hunters in the past, and have also been hurt by people destroying their habitat, and have also been mistakenly killed by fishermen.  Because of this, their numbers have been declining in many of the places that they live.


The primary reason we visited Shark Bay and Monkey Mia was dolphins.  Jamie especially is crazy about dolphins!

Monkey Mia Bottlenose Dolphins
Monkey Mia is a place where people have been feeding wild bottlenose dolphins for about 45 years.  It started with fishermen who would feed dolphins off their ships, and then became more formalized over the years.  At one point, people were feeding and touching the dolphins without much oversight, which led to the animals being stressed, mothers ignoring their young, and dolphins even starting to bite people.

Now, however, rangers from Australia’s Department of Parks and Wildlife tightly control the feeding process.  There are only 5 female dolphins that are fed, and they are only fed a maximum of 3 times a day.  The total amount they are fed is about ¼ of their daily nutritional needs, so they don’t become dependent on feedings from humans.  And no one is allowed to touch the dolphins.

Group getting ready for a dolphin feeding
Dolphin feeding chart - we did the ones on Thursday the 12th
The dolphins were amazing.  We all got to feed a dolphin, and that was quite an experience.  But it was equally great to just watch these fabulous animals swim around and interact with each other.  Even after the feeding, there were often dolphins swimming up and down the beach, sometimes fishing, sometimes playing, and sometimes perhaps just hanging out.

Dolphin close-up
Jamie feeding a dolphin
Jason feeding a dolphin
While we were waiting for one of the feedings, a sea snake came close… perhaps a bit too close, actually.  Sea snakes are one of the most venomous creatures in the world.  A bite from one can kill a person.  However, they are not aggressive and virtually never bother or bite people.

Sea Snake
We had a great time feeding the dolphins.  But we had a long discussion about it afterwards.  The question we asked ourselves was whether this was good for the dolphins or not.  We decided to come up with a list of benefits for the dolphins and problems that this could cause the dolphins.

This is actually Jamie and Jason’s list.  Before reading their list, we’d suggest you stop and come up with your own lists.  Then compare it with theirs.  We’d love to hear from you about your lists!

Benefits for the Dolphins:

  1. Rangers and researchers learned about dolphin behaviors from studying these dolphins.
  2. Researchers learned that it’s not good to feed and pet dolphins.
  3. People that visit learn about dolphins and want to help protect them and their habitat.  (This point led into a discussion about zoos as this is one of the rationales for zoos)

Problems for the Dolphins:

  1. People used to touch them
  2. Feeding dolphins and not letting them find food on their own
  3. The babies of the fed dolphins were not getting enough milk because the mothers were hanging out in shallow water all the time waiting for food.  In shallow water the baby dolphin can’t get underneath the mother to get milk.  Babies of fed dolphins were dying more often than babies of dolphins that were not fed.  
  4. It’s unnatural
  5. They get used to humans and go up to humans.  This could be bad because there’s more of a chance for a person to be bit.  Also sunscreen that people put on irritates dolphins eyes.
  6. They can get hurt by boats if they are begging for food from people on the boats.

In the end, whether this is good for the dolphins or not is a really tough question.  If you compare the benefits and problems, it probably is not good for these individual dolphins, but it does have some benefits for dolphins in general.  There is no right answer here.

But, as you can see from Jamie’s reaction, it is a pretty incredible experience.

Lastly, here's a short video of some of the Monkey Mia dolphins (and the unexpected sea snake!).

Sources and good links for more info on dugongs:

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