When the Dolphin Discovery Centre began in Bunbury in 1989, it was run through the window of a caravan parked on the beach. Now, more than two decades later, a modern facility had been built and draws more than 75,000 visitors a year.
The not-for-profit tourism centre uses its funds for research into dolphins' behaviour and hence prolong the existence of the bottlenose dolphin.
The main focus of the centre is conservation and education, which is assisted by Murdoch University. The information gained by volunteers and marine biologists is then used to assist with bottlenose dolphins elsewhere in the world.
The tidal conditions, shallower waters, lack of predators and abundance of food draws hundreds of bottlenose dolphins into Koombana Bay each year.
Phil Coulthard, an experienced marine biologist, explains that the incoming tides bring fish and nutrients into the bay, attracting the dolphins, and the outgoing tides lead them into deeper waters.
Two worlds unite at the Dolphin Discovery Centre - the dolphins' and ours.
In the four levels of interaction - the discovery centre, interaction zone, a swim encounter and an eco cruise - you are literally only metres from these graceful animals.
In the discovery centre you are lucky to be close to some strange creatures of the sea. Octopuses, seahorses and coral fish hide cleverly, although there is always a volunteer on hand to help you find them.
Located in the shallow water at the front of the centre, dolphins may visit the interaction zone at any time - it really is a game of luck.
The swim encounter provides a rare chance to get up close and personal with the dolphins and, if lucky, their calves.
We were provided with the opportunity to go on the eco cruise, which was an hour and a half spent exploring the waters of the bay in search of the dolphins, which you can be assured will be close by.
As we boarded the Bunbury Dolphin Tours boat, our guide Mike greeted us with a humorous safety demonstration. In a matter of moments we were gliding through the peaceful cerulean waters heading out to the cut, where many of the dolphins come to feed.
In an instant we were surrounded by the playful mammals; we were in the middle of a feeding frenzy.
It was almost as if the beautiful, splashing creatures were working with the pied cormorants to round up the fish and, in turn, both had a good feed. The birds would swoop down, hit the ocean waves and in a matter of seconds swoop back up with a fish lodged in their throat.
The dolphins were mesmerising, swimming under the boat one minute, their grey bodies easy to detect in the water, and the next moment they were nowhere to be seen. Well, until the next school of fish came along. If the fish imprint in the birds' throats was any indication, I would say that they were well fed.
Mike's passion and knowledge for his job were truly astounding, and the facts that he was divulging were fascinating. Who ever knew that dolphins can weigh up to 400kg?
The Dolphin Discovery Centre works hard to have little-to-no impact on the environment and be as eco-friendly as possible. Many volunteers come to Koombana Bay to help visitors experience a slice of what they do, and they have guides who are ready to speak in a variety of languages to tourists from overseas.
Many of the dolphins that visit the bay regularly have been named, and most of them remembered because of the accidents they have got themselves into.
For instance, one dolphin is called Jet and another Ski after the mother and calf were involved in a jet ski accident. Others are remembered for indentations or marks they have on their fins, or just the impact that they have on the people that work there.
As a dolphin swims through the white wash of the water with its baby calf and splashes its tail down, you grab your camera to capture the perfect photo opportunity, but of course you're too late.
You may just have to go to the Dolphin Discovery Centre to see it for yourself.
- fact file *
· The Dolphin Discovery Centre is open daily from 8am to 4pm until May; from 9am to 2pm from June to September. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children (4-14) and concessions and $25 for a family (two adults and two children).
· Eco Cruises are $53 for adults, $45 for concessions, $35 for children and $161 for families.
· Swim Encounters are $185 for swimmers, $85 for adult observers and $65 for concession, student and child observers.
·Go to dolphin discovery website or call 9791 3088.