I stared at my new co-worker. Swimming coolly in the water, Nicky’s long body was svelte and dark. She stared back at me through a sleepy grey lid and her Julia Roberts lips were stretched into a disconcerting half smile…Okay, I’m going to stop here before my effort at personification starts sounding like a porno!
Nicky is a 35-year-old dolphin, a mother of three surviving calves and her fin looks like three jagged peaks on a mountain. I am a scummy backpacker. Our friendship surpassed oceans of differences, although we probably won’t end up Facebooking when I go home.
It was my first day volunteering at Monkey Mia, a world-famous hang-out for the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, tiger sharks and strange sea-mermaids called dugongs (although they look more like a sea-cow than a mermaid) and I was getting acquainted with the natives.
Thanks to my trusty Australian guidebook and a conveniently located payphone in Coral Bay, I had been able to secure a much-coveted position in Monkey Mia’s Dolphin Research Facility, smack in the middle of World Heritage-listed Shark Bay.
Needless to say, I was pretty excited to be working with dolphins in one of Australia’s best kept secrets – 320 days of sunshine a year, free dolphin watching and interaction every day, awesome beaches and hardly anybody to share it all with.
Monkey Mia’s location halfway between Perth and Broome, at the tip of an isolated peninsula, means it can feel like you are travelling to the ends of the Earth to get there, but hey, nobody said that finding paradise was easy.
From the minute I arrived, I was thrown right into the shallow end of Dolphin Beach’s crystal blue shores. Dolphins have visited Monkey Mia for over four decades, missing only four days in the last five years, so on a typical day it’s possible to watch schools of female dolphins withtheir calves, squadrons of saggy-jawed pelicans drinking from the sprinklers, and the odd turtle just bobbing about – all from the comfort of the shell-decorated strand.
But bleary-eyed backpackers beware: The early morning feed, anytime from 7.30am onwards, is always the biggest crowd puller for dolphins as well as humans. Depending on how hungry they are, the dolphin’s three allocated feeds could be over by 9am.
But Monkey Mia and its world-famous dolphins are worth the effort; volunteering there ranks as one of my top activities in Australia.
Have you ever felt the rough skin of a dolphin skim past your legs? Or seen a five-hour-old calf cuddle next to its mother, its fin still soft and curved from birth? I have!
While mums and dads with excited toddlers and nervous tweens ankle-splashed eagerly at the water’s edge, I was in the thick of things – seaweed, pebbles, fish and dolphins galore.
Puck, a 34-year-old grandmother, recognisable by her ‘wave in the wind’ shaped fin, gave birth to Samu on my fifth day of volunteering. It was truly inspiring to witness Puck’s trust in humans as she happily paraded her brand new baby to the tourists.
Her children and grandchildren swam nearby, offering their protection or congratulations, maybe both. Their actions were so human and so relatable that I immediately wanted to befriend these intelligent creatures.
After a week of interaction I imagined that we had formed a bond – not so much by my daily preparation of yellow-tailed fish for their meals – but because of an intense childish wish to make friends with ‘Flipper’.
For those who are not dolphin lovers or who have a phobia of water creeping above their ankles, Monkey Mia and Shark Bay offer countless other distractions: hot tubs and an icy swimming pool for the masochistic, camel rides for the horny, cruises and sail-boats for the rich and poor, Aboriginal storytelling tours for the culturally-inclined, shark sightings, dugong searches, 4WD trips, snorkelling, romantic walks across spiky shelled shores and wrestling matches against hungry local emus – the resort really is a world of wonder.
Traveller tips: if you are a twit-head or, despite being on the adventure of a lifetime, you just can’t forget Facebook, then prepare to go cold pelican. In Monkey Mia, a ‘wireless’ still
means a radio, and even in the metropolis of nearby Denham
(an old pearling town with a population of about 1,000), internet and phone access is available only through expensive, old fashioned machines and pay phones (remember those?).
Considering Denham is Australia’s most westerly town, food is also super pricey. I’m not sure they’ve even heard of Woollies or Coles. Mia advice: stock up on tins and Twitter in Perth or Broome and, while in Monkey Mia, embrace the pearls of the West.
Whether you work as a cowboy, help turtles to nest, or simply get involved in a genuine Aussie community, travellers can get a lot more out of Oz by volunteering, writes Andrew Westbrook.
As great as it is racing up the coasts, seeing all the sights and hitting the bars, sometimes it’s just not enough. Which is why so many travellers seek something a bit more fulfilling.
There are numerous ways to work as a volunteer in Oz – and all of them will probably give you completely unique experiences.
Whether it’s working on an Aussie farm, helping preserve the land around Uluru, or keeping an eye on lizard populations, there’s certainly no shortage of options.
The most common approach is to sign up with Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF). The organisation has more than 1,600 hosts willing to put up travellers. In return for a few hours of work a day, on anything from a huge cattle station to farms producing butterflies, so-called WWOOFers will be given free accommodation and food, often eating with the host family.
As Gary Ainsworth, of WWOOF Australia (www.wwoof.com.au), says: “People are given the opportunity to become part of the local community. This experience gives so much more than being on the outside looking in.”
Another big bonus of WWOOFing is that three months of volunteering with the right hosts means travellers qualify for a second working holiday visa, in other words an extra year in Australia.
An alternative option is Conservation Volunteers Australia (www.conservationvolunteers.com.au), which has 25 offices across the country, although some costs are generally involved. A spokeswoman said: “You’re interacting with local communities and going to places normal tourists don’t get to see. You’re not just a tourist!”
“Australia is such a unique and beautiful country with amazing landscapes and wildlife, being a volunteer allows you to contribute to the protection of our precious environment,” she added.
Generally a good level of fitness and a willingness to get stuck in are the only qualifications you need.