A day in the life of a dolphin volunteer

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I’m writing this from Bunbury in Western Australia, where I’m having the adventure of my life.

A few weeks ago I packed a backpack and jumped on a plane from England to the other side of the world. I am now volunteering at the Dolphin Discovery Centre, which supports the research and conservation of the wild bottlenose dolphins that live in Koombana bay.

Here the other volunteers and I wake up at 6am, but I never want to sleep in. Work is spending all day with dolphins and I can’t believe I’m not dreaming still.

We throw on our red volunteer shirts and walk to the centre together.  On the way, we can hear a cacophony of white cockatoos squaking overhead. Sometimes we see them squabbling and fighting to sit on the lampposts that line the dirt track which runs along the estuary.

Early in the morning the sun is gentle and the river sparkles. Sometimes people are jumping from the bridge into the water, breaking the stillness.

Just before we reach the centre, we cross a dusty, disused railway track that is overgrown with plants. Then we see the ocean. It all seems too wonderful to be real, but it is.

The DDC is situated right on the sea front and is comprised of an indoor aquatic centre, complete with a digital dolphinarium and 3D displays, a research and volunteer centre, and a beachfront dolphin interaction zone.

On arrival we have a team meeting with the long term volunteers, then we complete our morning duties – the Centre must be swept and tidied, the tanks cleaned, the signage put out and the digital educational displays set up before the guests arrive.

At 8 o’clock the DDC opens to visitors and we begin our rotations. There are three work stations: the broadwalk, where we talk to visitors, monitor the dolphin visits and assist with the eco boat tours, the “Can” where watch for dolphin arrivals and record data on dolphin visits, and finally the discovery room, which is a multi-media, interactive education centre.

The DDC’s conservation activities extend beyond dolphin research, the Centre also rescues injured sea turtles, breeds tropical fish and temporarily keeps live octopus for education purposes. As a not for profit organisation, money from the centre directly contributes to research and conservation education.

The resident octopus is fed daily in front of the children who visit us. During the feed, the staff explain how an octopus has three hearts, nine brains and can change the texture of their skin at will. Often it will shower the kids with water, causing them to shriek with excitement. It is hoped that these experiences will be inspiring enough to encourage the next generation to protect and respect our oceans.

The DDC is a fantastic learning experience. Even though I’ve loved dolphins for my entire life, I am amazed by some of the new information I’ve picked up in just two weeks.

Yesterday I went on a swim tour. We took a boat out, got in the water and waited patiently for the dolphins to swim to us. Shanty, the matriarch of the regular visitors, swam right beneath my feet. It was one of those moments that stops your heart for a second and anchors you firmly in the present. Experiencing this, I wondered why people would choose captive dolphin interactions. Nothing compares to the magic of a free dolphin swimming towards you.

This morning at the centre, we wait eagerly for the bell to ring signalling that dolphins are entering the interaction zone. This tiny strip of beach is the only area in which we are licensed to bring people into contact with the dolphins –  everything is on their terms and this is what makes each encounter feel like magic. Whenever volunteers or guests spot the fins in the distance, we all get excited.

When a group of dolphins come in the zone we form neat lines, leaving space in the centre for the dolphins to swim through and leave if they want to. Sometimes they come so close you could touch them, but we never do.

I’m already learning to identify some of the regulars by their distinct dorsal fins. There are two mother and calf pairs (Cracker and Cookie and Levy and Aurora) who visit us most days. I have a particular soft spot for Levy as she and baby Aurora were the first dolphins I saw. Cracker is the easiest to spot, as she has two distinctive nicks in her fin.

After our shifts, we all socialise together. Morning shifts end at twelve, and even a full day ends at four, so we have plenty of time to explore Australia and watch the glorious sunsets at Back Beach. Most of the other volunteers on rotation are staying in the same hostel as me. It is a lovely, homely establishment aptly called the Dolphin Retreat. Two weeks in, these people are already starting to feel like family.

Although at 28 I’m one of the eldest here, everyone has really made me feel at home. My new friends come from all over the world and we are all relaxed, happy and enjoying ourselves. Again it makes me wonder why we live such stressful, closed off lives in the UK.

Tonight we are going for a group meal and tomorrow is one of my hostel mate’s birthdays, so we will be having a big celebration. This is such a wonderful way of living I’m not sure how I will ever be able to leave.

I wish I could stay indefinitely, but there’s a big world out there and I’m just getting started with my travels.

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