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The dolphins of Tangalooma

Face to face with wild dolphins. Had SUMITRA SENAPATY come to see them or they her?

Another inhabitant of the island ... the Australian Kookaburra.

NOW, anyone who really knows me will also know that I love dolphins. I always have. Needless to say that the pictures in the brochure (which I have with me) really caught my eye. They show a person standing about knee deep in water with a smiling dolphin beneath him. Another shows a person holding a bucket of fish feeding an eager dolphin. The literature says that these wild dolphins have come in for a long time just to see the people.

Sounds interesting. The photos seemed to show a one-on-one encounter. All this looked to good to be true ... and it was.

Dolphins have always been a source of fascination — their beauty, manoeuverability, intelligence and affinity with humans. Now in Australia, people have the opportunity to experience first hand contact with wild dolphins.

Tangalooma, on Moreton Island, east of Brisbane, is one of the two known sites in the world where people can actually mingle with these animals in their natural habitat when they come to feed at the beach at night.

The feeding programme is conducted by the Tangalooma Wild Dolphin Resort to provide people with the opportunity to come face to face with wild dolphins and for qualified researchers to study their behaviour.

The dolphins were amazing. At about 7 p.m. I headed down to the beach to check out what was happening. People sat down at the waterfront for about an hour.

The feeding programme ensures that dolphins and visitors enjoy their encounter.

Over the hour the crowd grew and grew. Finally the dolphins arrived — a female, a male and a baby, namely Tinkerbelle, Shadow and Tangles. The dolphin care staff were there to make sure that we came out in the water no further than our knees. The dolphins moved about and it was very interesting. The water was a bright green near the jetty and the water was very warm.

I was able to feed the dolphin that evening. I took the fish and held it near the surface of the water. The dolphin swallowed it head first. I resisted touching its grey and rubbery skin. I wanted to hold Tinkerbelle close to me. Instead I was satisfied watching her graceful movements through the water.

The group of dolphins we were privileged to have visit us at Tangalooma are inshore bottlenose dolphins, which have a home range in this area of Moreton Bay.

For many years these dolphins have come to the waters underneath the jetty to feed on the baitfish which are attracted by the jetty lights. In the early 1990's, one of these dolphins began to take fish thrown to her from the jetty. Perhaps she was hungry because she had a young suckling calf (baby dolphin).

Since this initial interaction, other dolphins of the same pod (group) have joined in the Tangalooma feeding programme. There are now about eight dolphins regularly attending the feeding and education sessions. Bottlenose dolphins or Tursiops Truncatus are very social and due to their visibility and intelligence, attract a high level of human interest.

I spent a little time looking carefully at each of the visiting dolphins and noticed that they are a little different from one another. With practice you can learn to recognise each of them by their size, colour (some are lighter, some darker) and in particular the shape of their dorsal fin. I spent quite a while on the jetty to see if I could recognise who is who! Fred, Rani, Nick and Bobo are some of the regular visitors. Bess is the proud mother of a dolphin calf by the name of Nari, which translates from an aboriginal word meaning friend. I saw that Nari definitely lived up to his name and quite often swam very close to people in the water and even sometimes between their legs.

The island procedures ensure that both the dolphins and visitors enjoy their encounter. In order that the dolphins remain wild, a diet chart is strictly followed and the animals are fed less than a quarter of their daily food needs. People participating in the programme are asked not to touch or handle the dolphins to avoid them becoming used to human contact. (Remember that the Tangalooma dolphins are wild, what you will see is natural wild behaviour, not a "dolphin show".) The happy co-existence between dolphins and people has a long history at Tangalooma. Early European explorers reported that aborigines used the dolphins to round up fish and drive them towards their waiting spears.

These tales of dolphin intelligence are not surprising, but habitual contact with wild dolphins is however very unusual.

Those fortunate enough to have encounters with these animals are left with a feeling of awe. Some people claim that contact with dolphins can have therapeutic effects on those with certain conditions, but research has still to provide a scientific basis for this. Nevertheless, the Tangalooma encounters have played their part in promoting further research and public interest in these fascinating creatures and for their continued well-being.

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