Patience pays off for delighted dolphin helper
I'VE ONLY HAD MY SAILBOAT in Australia for two weeks, and already I've enjoyed a marine animal encounter that thrilled me to my toes. And I haven't left the marina yet.
I didn't need a boat at all. I just stood in the right place at the right time, and an Australian celebrity came to me.
My friend and fellow biologist, Kirsten, arrived last week to explore the Great Barrier Reef with me. But before we sailed, we decided to make an overnight road trip and visit Tin Can Bay. There we hoped to meet Mystique and Patch, two famous Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins.
This coastal, shallow-water species lives here and there in South China, parts of Indonesia, the Philippines and East Australia. Researchers report the populations in each area from about 100 to 1,000, meaning these animals are relatively rare.
In Tin Can Bay, however, you can see humpback dolphins almost daily. There a few come to the marina to get free fish.
It started in 1974 when fishers in the estuarine bay began feeding an injured dolphin some of their catch. This female named Scar recovered and began coming to the boat ramp most mornings. People loved the dolphin and kept the fish coming.
In 1992, Scar delighted her human friends by showing up with her baby. By 1995 the youngster, named Mystique through a local children's contest, was accepting fish on his own.
When the aged Scar disappeared, Mystique occasionally appeared with a female companion, Patch. Sometimes, up to six dolphins accompanied Mystique for a fish breakfast.
Word got out, and soon hundreds of dolphin-lovers were visiting Tin Can Bay. With no controls in place though, some people abused the animals, trying to sit on them or grabbing at fins for a ride.
Because of this, Australia's Environmental Protection Agency banned the feeding in 2005. Outraged locals, however, defied the decree and continued giving fish to their dolphin friends.
This year, a compromise was struck. The government allowed Tin Can Bay residents to feed the dolphins if they kept records and followed some rules. Today, 22 volunteers thaw 100 frozen fish, bought with donations, daily and allow 10 people at a time to wade in and feed.
Kirsten and I stayed at a Tin Can Bay motel overnight to be at the boat ramp by 6 a.m.
No dolphins showed up. This happens occasionally, and by 9 o'clock about half the 50 or 60 people there left. Soon more gave up, leaving only a handful of us hopefuls, Kir and I among them.
Then, just as the volunteers were about to pack up the fish, a gray dorsal fin cut the water. Mystique sped to shallow water, turning sideways to look at us as if to say, "Where's the fish?"
Patch didn't come that day, and because so few people were there, I fed Mystique seven fish. He took each one delicately, careful not to hurt the delighted hand that fed it.
Marine encounters can't get better than this, I thought. Or maybe they can. As I write, Kir and I are sailing to the Great Barrier Reef.