Before about 10 months ago, I considered myself to be dolphin deprived. After all, in 2006, having kitted out in the most unflattering and uncomfortable wet suit, in 35 degrees of heat, I had gone from the Dolphin Discovery Centre – rather a misnomer as it turned out – into Koombana Bay off Bunbury in WA to try to meet dolphins on their own territory. They refused to play the game. There was another no-show the next day when we hoped they might hang in the shallows on the beach, which happened quite often, we were told. But not that day.
Then last Easter, from Cape Byron headland, we watched a playful pod surfing off Wategos, and all was right with the world.
We recently returned to Byron, as you do, to show our visitor beach heaven in northern New South Wales. As you walk along the coastal path from Wategos to the lighthouse, you can look almost straight down into the water from the clifftop. On the day we were there the water was very clear: a local had earlier told us that there hadn't been any decent waves (for surfing) for weeks; calm equating with clear, I guess. Such clarity enabled us to observe a pod of up to 30 dolphins, first swimming towards Broken Head, and then pootling back in the direction of Wategos.
Byron Bay has both 'resident' and 'transient' Bottlenose dolphins – more than 800 according to dolphinresearchaustralia.com. Males often hang together in relatively small groups, but females and their young (below) have a much wider social network within their home range. Pods may be as large as 100 or more.
Bottlenose dolphins are, in fact, small 'toothed' whales that are found all over the world in tropical and temperate oceans, and all round the coast of Australia. These are the dolphins we are all familiar with, they of smiley face and sea-world-venue antics. They're intelligent, charismatic, friendly, sociable, fun-loving, sleek-moving and highly communicative. They can stay underwater for 15 minutes and can dive to 600 metres, if necessary, for food; they are carnivorous, eating squid and a wide variety of fish. Their main predators are killer whales, sharks and humans. In some parts of the world they are still caught for food: they're also at risk from fishing nets, overfishing, pleasure craft, habitat destruction and degradation and pollution.
As you would expect, the Bottlenoses brought smiles to a lot of people's faces along Cape Byron cliff path that day. We could hear as well as see their tail slaps as they chatted to each other. We could also clearly see rays, Green turtles and a shark, which a local standing next to me identified as a Gummy shark. If it was, it was just about at its most northerly extent up the east coast of Australia. There were several turtles, diving and surfacing and basking happily, or so it looked.
A few days before, we'd had an appointment with Mystique in Snapper Creek, Tin Can Bay. Now, I don't know how dolphins get their names. Mystique, to me, says mutant supervillain in a Marvel comic or an R&B-meets-rap 'songbird sista'. A female, at any rate. But Mystique the Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin is a male. He has a female partner, Patch – an equally inappropriate name if you ask me, but we didn't see her so it may be apposite.
Indo-Pacific Humpbacks are estuarine dolphins and are endangered in Australia. (They are also found in Hong Kong harbour, off the east coast of Africa and in the Yangzte River in China.) They love warm, shallow tropical waters and sand and mud banks typical of the Great Sandy Straits (an estuary separating Fraser Island from the Queensland coast and extending north of Tin Can Bay). They don't like open water and won't venture deeper than 20 metres. They have a longer snout (rostrum) than ocean-going Bottlenose dolphins and a more pronounced 'hump', or dorsal fin, on their back. They are a much lighter grey, with pink overtones, especially on their tums, and they can look quite mottled. Calves are born grey and get lighter and pinker with age.
Human-dolphin interaction has been going on here since the 1950s, when an injured dolphin beached on the sand not far from what was to become the Barnacles Dolphin Centre. Locals fed him while he recovered. Old Scarry returned to the wild but kept coming back to visit. This learnt experience has been passed on, and Mystique is the third generation to turn up more or less like clockwork, between 8 and 10 very nearly every morning (three no-shows last year).
Mystique himself was badly injured in 2007 when he came off worse during battle with a bull shark. He sought refuge at Barnacles, like his forebears, and was nursed by volunteers around the clock for ten days. He definitely reacted favourably to a lady who cared for him then when she joined him in the water while we were there.
The Queensland government regulates all feeding of dolphins – they are only allowed ten per cent of their daily requirements – and volunteer minders monitor all interaction. Tourists are only allowed in the water with dolphins if minders are with them, and they're not allowed to touch.
You get all Mystique's vital statistics from the minders: he's 20 years old, weighs 145 kilos and measures 2.7 metres in length. He has 116 teeth (see below), and will probably live to about 40 to 45.
There are about 120 Humpback dolphins in the Eastern Shores area: 50 in the Southern area, of which Tin Can Bay is a part; and 70 in the Northern. Mystique and Patch live in a pod of about eight. Mystique is the alpha male and the rakings on his back are evidence of territorial disputes with other males. He feeds off fish, molluscs, crabs, squid, prawns and octopus: at Barnacles he was being fed 'little biddies'. Dolphins sometimes use 'tools' to get at their food: one minder described Mystique using a sea sponge to get at oysters.
There were maybe 20-25 people gathered, which was quiet, we were told. Most paid $5 to paddle in the shallows and feed Mystique a couple of fish. We didn't. We just stood and watched him. One group of visitors photographed every single person going down with their little pot. Mystique eventually turned and took his leave. When most visitors had gone – and we'd finished our breakfast at Barnacles cafe – he came back, seemingly just to socialise with his minders. We just stood and stared again, only it was much better this time.
The dolphins of Tin Can Bay area are currently under greater threat than ever: from a proposal to build a large swanky new marina on Norman Point, enclosing the sandy beach where the dolphins currently visit. There is already a marina on Snapper Creek which, according to the dolphin volunteers, is not fully utilised. They believe this new development would mean the end of dolphin visitations. According to the developers...
During construction of the proposed marina, management measures would be put in place to reduce potential impacts on the current feeding activities [of the dolphins]. These could for example include limiting works around the feeding area during peak times (typically in the mornings), employing fauna watchers during construction and utilising lower noise methods to install piles where possible.
The federal government is about to decide whether or not the proposal goes ahead. If you would like to support those who do not believe that the measures outlined by the developer will be sufficient to prevent serious impact on Humpback dolphins' habits in this creek, please 'Click and Save' at marina.tincanbaydolphins.com.au. It will only take you a minute.