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Barnacles Wild Dolphin Centre at Tin Can Bay

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by Meg Forbes (subscribe)
Meg Forbes is a mum, freelance writer, and photographer living in the Redlands, South of Brisbane. https://www.instagram.com/megforbesphotography/
Published August 25th 2020
Feed and interact with rare Australian humpback dolphins
Tin Can Bay is a stunning area of estuaries protected by the southern tip of K'Gari / Fraser Island. The region is home to a wide variety of wildlife, with visitors often thrilled to see the rare, Australian humpback dolphins that call the waterways home.

Barnacles Dolphin Centre sits on a beautiful estuary in Tin Can Bay
Barnacles Dolphin Centre sits on a beautiful estuary in Tin Can Bay


Barnacles Dolphin Centre on Snapper Creek is, therefore, a highlight on many visitors' itineraries, with wild Australian humpback dolphins coming in each morning to interact and feed with humans. The tradition began in the 1950s when an injured dolphin beached itself at the Barnacles Cafe, and fishermen nursed it back to health. Although the dolphin returned to the wild once healed, he continued to visit his friends. Over the years more dolphins have sought help following injury, and the friendship between their pod and the humans at Tin Can Bay has grown to the point where locals were asked to come down and interact with them at the height of Queensland's pandemic restrictions as the dolphins were bringing presents of shells, coral, discarded bottles, and the like as they were missing their visitors so much.

The dolphins who visit here love human interaction and displayed signs of loneliness during the strict COVID restrictions of April 2020
The dolphins who visit here love human interaction and displayed signs of loneliness during the strict COVID restrictions of April 2020


The Barnacles Dolphin Centre is one of only two permitted wild dolphin feeding centres in Queensland. Feeding is strictly limited, with each dolphin only allowed a maximum of 3Kg of fish per day. This ensures that they don't become dependant upon people for food, and continue their natural hunting behaviour with a varied diet of fish, squid, and crustaceans.

Each dolphin is allowed a maximum of 3Kg per day so that their natural hunting behaviour isn't interrupted
Each dolphin is allowed a maximum of 3Kg per day (less than 1/5th of their daily requirement) so that their natural hunting behaviour isn't interrupted


The Barnacles Dolphin Centre opens at 7am, and feeding starts at around 8am, keeping in mind that the dolphins are wild and may vary in their behaviour on occasions. Our family has visited many times over the years, and usually, one to five dolphins have arrived not long after 7am. Once the dolphins arrive, visitors are invited to join volunteers in the water to learn more about the dolphins.

Before the feeding begins, there is an opportunity for visitors to learn about the dolphins on the beach with the volunteers
Before the feeding begins, there is an opportunity for visitors to learn about the dolphins on the beach with the volunteers


Dolphins may only be hand-fed the fresh fish that is caught locally and provided on-site. The Barnacles Dolphin Centre charges $5 per person for entry (including standing in the water with volunteers prior to feeding, and fantastic photo opportunities from the beach and walkways), and visitors who would like to feed a dolphin can purchase a fish in a bucket to cover the cost of catching them each day for $5.

Each fish comes in a handy bucket, and the volunteers educate visitors on the correct way to feed them to the dolphins
Each fish comes in a handy bucket, and the volunteers educate visitors on the correct way to feed them to the dolphins


The feeding is popular with visitors from all around the world, and especially for children. Opportunities for children to engage with wildlife are now recognised to support future conservation, as well as being beneficial for their wellbeing in a world that often bombards them with electronic media. The volunteers at Barnacles Dolphin Centre are patient, and teach visitors about the dolphins and the correct way to feed them.

Even young children can feed the dolpins with guidance from the friendly volunteers
Even young children can feed the dolpins with guidance from the friendly volunteers


Australian humpback dolphins (Sousa sahulensis), with their low, triangular dorsal fin, were renamed as unique from the Indo-Pacific humpback species in 2014.

One of the dolphins displaying its
One of the dolphins displaying its humped back and short, triangular fin


Their preferred habitats include estuaries and rivers, making Tin Can Bay an ideal environment for them. Although young calves (who are about 1 metre in length at birth) are a fairly dark shade of grey, Australian humpback dolphins tend to whiten with age.

Ella with her then 20 week old calf, Jo, in 2018
Ella with her then 20 week old calf in 2018


Australian humpback dolphin pods are generally fairly small. Typically 2-4 individuals are seen together, although groups of up to 31 have been observed. The wild pod who have befriended the people at Barnacles Dolphin Centre is currently made up of 9 dolphins including Mystique, Patch, Ella, Squirt, Harmony, Aussie, Valentine, Chompy, and White Fin, with new calves born into the pod periodically. More information on the dolphins is provided by Barnacles Dolphin Centre here.

Watching the dolphin calves playing with their mothers is especially delightful
Watching the dolphin calves playing with their mothers is especially delightful


A small number of wild birds, including cormorants and Australian pelicans, who call this part of Snapper Creek home have recognised the easy meal that the small buckets in the hands of visitors represent, so some of the volunteers remain in radio contact with each other to keep them away.

This dolphin almost lost its breakfast to a cheeky cormorant
This dolphin almost lost its breakfast to a cormorant


The dolphin feeding is always a well-managed and orderly affair with each family group called down to the beach together. This allows each group to capture memories of their time with the dolphins through photographs, and to learn a little more about them.

Making memories under the watchful eye of a volunteer
Making memories under the watchful eye of a volunteer


Once the dolphins have had their fill they generally head back into the wild to continue their hunting for the day. Because of this, Barnacles Dolphin Centre recommends being on-site before 8am to ensure you don't miss them.

Once the feeding is over, these wild dolphins continue about their day in the estuary
Once the feeding is over, these wild dolphins continue with their day in the estuary


A few changes have been introduced as part of the Barnacles Dolphin Centre's COVID Safe Plan. Only 50 people are allowed to the feeding and viewing area at a time, and everyone entering this restricted area will need to purchase a feeding as well as a viewing token. The fantastic Barnacles Cafe (open from 7am - 3pm each day), which sits directly behind the viewing area, continues to serve their fabulous breakfasts and great coffee during this time, as well as having a reduced number of souvenirs available. For families with younger children, ordering breakfast to enjoy during the viewing time between 7am and 8am is often a helpful way to reach 8am and the excitement of dolphin feeding time starting.

Cheers! Hot chocolate followed by breakfast while waiting for the dolphin feeding
Cheers! Hot chocolate followed by breakfast while waiting for the dolphin feeding


Although the dolphins come right up into the shallows along the beach, we have generally found that we get wet up to our knees during the dolphin feeding. For this reason, we usually take a towel for each family member and a change of clothes. When our children were younger we'd dress them in SunSmart swimmers (with a jumper over the top on colder mornings).

Facilities at the Barnacles Dolphin Centre include:

Customer toilets
Free parking
A playground with public toilets and showers, picnic tables, and electric BBQs adjacent to the carpark.

In addition to Barnacles Dolphin Centre's own facilities, there is a park with a playground, picnic shelters, electric BBQs and public toilets adjacent to the car park
In addition to Barnacles Dolphin Centre's own facilities, there is a park with a playground, picnic shelters, electric BBQs and public toilets adjacent to the car park


Due to the boat ramp next to the Barnacles Dolphin Centre, the nearest parking is designated for vehicles with trailers and fines may be issued to people parking without a trailer in this area. Just beyond this, towards the playground, is ample, free car parking for visitors to the centre.


An Australian humpback dolphin and her calf playing in the estuary near the Barnacles Dolphin Centre

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Why? Barnacles Dolphin Centre is one of only two places licensed in Queensland for dolphin feeding
When: Daily from approximately7am - 9am. The Barnacles Cafe is open from 7am - 3pm daily
Phone: 07 5486 4899
Where: Norman Point, Tin Can Bay, Qld 4580
Cost: $5 for entry, and $5 for a locally caught fresh fish to feed the dolphins
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