I'm a freelance writer living in Perth. Having 2 young kids with endless energy, we are always on the lookout for new outdoor activities.
Published January 28th 2012
When anybody mentions Monkey Mia, the image that comes to mind is that of a dolphin. And this is understandable as Monkey Mia Reserve is home to the famous dolphins who come to the beach every day of the year to be hand fed by us humans.
One of Monkey Mia's resident dolphin
But a visit to Monkey Mia is more than just that. The reserve is located in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, which was the first site granted a World Heritage status in Western Australia in 1991. It satisfied all four of the criteria to be listed as a world natural heritage, namely: contains exceptional natural beauty; represents major stages of Earth's history; represents significant on-going processes in the evolution; and contains important habitats for conservation of biological diversity.
Sounds grand, doesn't it? A visit would prove to you that it has indeed all those. First things first though, how do we get there? In short, drive north from Perth for about 700km--you have the choice of either Indian Ocean Drive or Brand Highway, they will merge somewhere on the way to Geraldton--until you find the Overlander Roadhouse, and turn left into the road marked "Shark Bay Road." Follow this road until you reach Monkey Mia.
Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort is the only accommodation once you arrive there. It caters for all budgets, from backpackers to beachside villas. And if you opt to stay at the nearest town (Denham) and make a day visit, you are still welcomed to use their facilities.
Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort
All ready for the dolphins now? Click the next section, please.
There is no need to beat around the bush, the main reason people visit Monkey Mia is the dolphin feeding. Every morning at no set time--whenever the dolphins decide to stop by--the rangers would provide a few visitors with the opportunity to hand feed the dolphins. As the dolphins are wild, daily numbers vary from less than five up to twenty and you just have to count on your luck for the maximum numbers to show up.
Lucky visitors feeding the dolphins
The unique thing about the dolphins is that they have come faithfully every day, rain or shine, for years, with the original Monkey Mia dolphins having children and grandchildren inheriting the tradition. This provides the rangers with a very good opportunity to observe and study the dolphins. They are recognised individually by their fins and family trees have been drawn to know who's who.
Dolphins lining up to be fed. Each individual is recognised by their fin, e.g. the fin at the left-bottom corner has some bite marks.
The study concluded among others that unlimited feeding caused some dolphins to abandon their natural hunting behaviours. One matriach dolphin named Nicky famously lost all of her many offsprings when dolphin feeding went unchecked, as she had been too busy begging for food instead of teaching her calves survival skills. That is why feeding is controlled now, and dolphins are only fed a small amount of fish the first three times they show up in the day (with long enough intervals for them to return to deep water). Afterwards, sorry guys, you just have to go fish.
Being the intelligent beings that they are, dolphins quickly learn to go away after being fed, as they know more is not forthcoming. They could also roll their bodies sideways so that one eye emerge above the water, to see what we are doing. Carrying pails of fish, hopefully.
I am watching you
Another interesting activity related to the dolphin feeding is the pelican feeding. Resident pelicans at Monkey Mia had been known to steal fish out of the dolphins' mouth at feeding times, so to avoid that happening--and upsetting dolphins and tourists alike-- rangers would lure the pelicans away from the dolphins and feed them separately.
Pelican feeding: The ranger on the right is holding a fish to lure the last pelican (aptly named Rouge), away from the dolphin feeding
Other Activities Around Monkey Mia
After the excitement of the dolphin feeding is over, you still have the rest of the day to kill. The resort's tour office is just a few steps away from the Dolphin Beach and they could offer you many activities including wildlife cruises where you would be able to come close to dolphins in the open water, dugongs, turtles, manta rays, and other marine life. After dolphins, dugongs seem to be the next best bet around here as Shark Bay has one of the largest dugong populations in the world.
Closer to the beach, you could hire a paddleboat, kayak, or glass bottom boat and take your own sweet time in going around the bay. The water is generally calm and you may still come face to face with the dolphins. We are not allowed to touch them even if they come to us, but we could certainly say hi and take their close up photos. Guided kayak tour could be arranged with the tour operator if you wish.
Paddleboating with a dolphin in the background
For a different view, you could go bushwalking by following one of the trails from the resort. Animal footprints are amazingly clear on the red sands but look out for ants before you crouch down and do your animal tracking act.
Footprints around Monkey Mia Reserve: Can you recognise them?
When you're tired after a full day out in the sun, head to the resort's pool and try the natural underground warm water in their hot tub.
Other Attractions in Shark Bay
As mentioned earlier, Shark Bay is more than just Monkey Mia. So on your way there or when you leave, it is a good idea to visit the other sites that make up the World Heritage area.
Attractions along World Heritage Drive
First stop (going from the Highway 1 into Shark Bay Road): Hamelin Pool. This beach is unique as it is one of only a handful of places in the world where stromatolites exist. Stromatolites, although they look like rock, are actually alive--they are composed of bacteria and algae. They are the oldest living organisms on earth, and they manage to survive all these millions of years at this location because the water here is twice as saline as the normal sea water, causing predators not to be able to survive.
The rocks are alive.
The walk from the carpark to the stromatolites boardwalk would also bring you close to an old shell quarry, where shells were made into building bricks. I could just imagine little cottages with bricks of shells as its walls. How quaint and romantic.
Shell bricks at the old shell quarry
Shells seem to collect in an abundant number in Shark Bay. If you stop by Shell Beach some 40km from Hamelin Pool, you'd see another unique spectacle: a vast white beach made up entirely of shells. Although you have never been there, you might have come closer than you think to the residue of the shells, as it is quarried among others to be mixed into chicken feed (for calcium enhancement).
This vast stretch of beach is actually made up of...
...shells like these.
30km onwards, and you can stop by Eagle Bluff. It has a scenic boardwalk along the coast, allowing us to view the marine life in the shallow waters below.
It does look like an eagle, doesn't it?
About 23km before you reach Monkey Mia, you'd arrive at Denham, the main town in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area. It has accommodations, eateries, shops, and other services. It also houses the Discovery & Visitor Centre, where you can use the interactive displays to learn more about Shark Bay.
An emu crossing the road at Denham
Just 5km after you leave Denham towards Monkey Mia, you'd see the Little Lagoon, a body of water that is a natural fish nursery. Recreational fishing is allowed without nets.
Francois Peron National Park within the World Heritage Area has mostly 4WD tracks. However, the road towards Peron Heritage Precinct is 2WD accessible and once there, you could take a self-guided walk exploring the old homestead buildings and learning about the area's history. There's also a hot tub with natural underground warm water, similar to the one at Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort.
If you drive a high clearance 4WD, then there are even more on offer. Dirk Hartog Island is the largest island in Western Australia and with so few visitors, you can expect a peaceful and private day walking, fishing, snorkeling or scuba diving. Steep Point is the western most point of Australia and is also one of the best land based fishing locations in the country. Due to their remote locations, visitors have to be sure to bring their own water and other supplies.