18 April, 2017   By: Vanessa Pogorelic

The friendly dolphins at Monkey Mia have given us more than just tourist happy snaps – they are also providing incredible insights into dolphin behaviours that have never been seen before.

Getting up close to the wild dolphins at Monkey Mia is one of the world’s truly rare wildlife encounters and those lucky enough to do it say it’s an experience you’ll remember forever.

The chance to stand in the shallows and interact with one of the world’s most loved animals has long drawn visitors north to WA’s Shark Bay region.

And for animal researchers it has opened up a window into a remarkable world and revealed some of the most unique wild dolphin behaviours ever observed.

One of the world’s longest running dolphin studies 

Beyond the beachside tourist zone, an international team of scientists has been documenting the Monkey Mia and Shark Bay dolphins since 1982.

Dr Janet Mann, a professor at Georgetown University in the USA, has been visiting WA to study the dolphins since 1988 as part of the Shark Bay Dolphin Project, the second-longest-running dolphin study in the world.

Dr Mann says the willingness of the Monkey Mia dolphins to be closely observed by humans has given researchers a unique insight into their intelligence and intriguing social lives.

Group of dolphins in shallow water at Monkey Mia
 Monkey Mia's wild dolphins are unconcerned by the activity of humans nearby

“They have no fear of humans. They’ll do most natural behaviours right in front of them,” Dr Mann says.

“It’s one of the special features of the Monkey Mia dolphins that they’ve learnt to trust humans. Because they’ve experienced so little harassment from boats or human activity, they're comfortable engaging in social and hunting behaviours very close to people.”

What makes Monkey Mia dolphins special?

Bottlenose dolphins, the species found in the Shark Bay region, have a very complex society and Monkey Mia’s dolphins exhibit social behaviours even more complex than those studied elsewhere.

"They collaborate with each other and sometimes with other alliances. That hasn’t been found anywhere outside of humans really."

Particularly unique is the deep friendship networks of Monkey Mia's male dolphins.

“They have multi-level, multi-male alliances that can range up to 14 animals. The size and levels of these male alliances hasn’t been found anywhere else,” Dr Mann says.

“Each male dolphin can have several close friends that make up an alliance - usually around three males. They collaborate with each other and sometimes with other alliances. That hasn’t been found anywhere outside of humans really.”

While the males have more structured alliances, the females are more free-form in their friendships, Dr Mann says.

“The females have more fluid and flexible social bonds. They can join up with other female friends and hang out or they can go off alone and forage.” 

 A female dolphin using a sponge to forage for food at Monkey Mia
A female dolphin using a sponge to forage for food off the beach at Monkey Mia
Foraging and hunting is something female dolphins do particularly well and Monkey Mia’s dolphins have honed their hunting skills to include techniques not seen elsewhere, including tool use.

Some use sea sponges held in their beaks to forage in the seabed. Others specialise in a fishing technique known as ‘beaching’ where schools of fish are herded onto the beach.

“I don’t think anywhere else in the world have they found so much individual variation in their hunting or foraging strategies,” Dr Mann says.

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Sharing the love

But it’s not all hard work for the girls. In their downtime, they occasionally get a visit from a curious male who has snuck away from his buddies for a secret visit.

The boys turn on the charm on these solo visits, Dr Mann says.

“They’re very sweet with the females when their [male] alliance partners aren’t there. They curry favour so she’ll prefer them next time over their partner. And the females seem to like it. When more than one male joins their group, they’ll tense up entirely but when it’s just one male they’re like ‘Oh hi,’ and they'll be all over each other!”

"She had brought in a live whiting and tried to give it to the ranger who had been trying to feed her before."

The way the dolphins interact with humans can also be surprising. In 1999, a young female named Piccolo began visiting the beach. She seemed to enjoy the attention but refused to take fish offered by rangers.

One day at a beach feeding session Piccolo had a change of heart about the fish — she took one but swam away with it. The next day she returned to the beach with her own gift.

Dr Mann was there when Piccolo returned.“She had brought in a live whiting and tried to give it to the ranger who had been trying to feed her before,” Dr Mann explains.

“She literally went vertical in the water — practically holding the fish up to his face, trying so hard to get him to take it. He didn’t know what to do. Maybe she felt guilty about taking the fish and wanted to give one back. She was obviously getting agitated because he wouldn’t take the fish, so she dropped it and kind of stormed off. It was hilarious!”

Piccolo offers a live whiting she's caught to a ranger on the beach at Monkey Mia
Piccolo offers a live whiting she's caught to a ranger on the beach at Monkey Mia

Piccolo tries  hard to share her fish with the ranger
Piccolo insists on trying to share her fish with the ranger
As dolphins typically don’t share their food or try to steal another dolphin’s fish, Dr Mann says attempts by the Monkey Mia dolphins to return a fish to those feeding them appears to be their way of reciprocating or giving back.

Protecting the dolphins

Dolphin feeding on the beach at Monkey Mia became regulated in 1994 on the recommendations of the international research team.

Regulating feeding and contact protects the dolphins while keeping open a connection between visitors and dolphins that's both emotional and educational.

“There's a lot you can teach people about them without using fancy science terms. People are so interested in these animals and everything about them and we know so much about them and their lives and the lives of their friends and associates," says Dr Mann.

“It’s one of the best places in the world to see natural dolphin behaviour. You can see fantastic hunting and foraging behaviours. Just standing on the jetty you can see some unbelievable things. They trust us so much, that’s why we do need to take extra care.”

International researchers taking part in the ongoing Shark Bay Dolphin Project are supported by RAC Parks and Resorts with accommodation free of charge at RAC Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort.

The morning dolphin feed
The morning dolphin feed

Image credits:Dr Janet Mann / Tourism WA.

Want to meet the Monkey Mia dolphins yourself?

RAC members save up to 20% on stays at the RAC Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort.

RAC Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort

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