The Call of the Dolphin

Shell Beach

I guess that Monkey Maya is quite a big deal on the Perth to Exmouth circuit as I’d begun to see postcards for it at every gas station and rest stop that we’d pulled over for.  The story is that some fishermen at Monkey Mia gave a few fish to some dolphins a decade or two ago and the dolphins came back the next day.  The fishermen fed them again and the dolphins have returned nearly every day since.  It is (so the tourist brochure says) possible for tourists to have a unique interaction with these swimming mammals – unlike anything found anywhere else in the world.  Unknown to me, there seems to be quite a dolphin craze – especially with the ladies – and most everyone on our bus was nearly ecstatic to have this unique and rare encounter with the dolphins.

We arrived into the evening and found a massive tourist resort that seemed to have lodging to fit every niche: a piece of grass if you want to pitch a tent, dorm rooms for backpackers, twin rooms with shared bath, deluxe suites with bathroom and some high-looking hotel rooms.  The Monkey Mia Resort had a coffee shop, gift shop, supermarket, travel shop as well as administration and lodging offices.  Everywhere I looked I read that Monkey Mia is the exclusive resort with access to the dolphin encounter.  We cooked a fine meal, some steaks if I remember correctly.  I’d been helping Mick behind the grill and it sorta felt like being at home having a Sunday football barbecue.

We were up bright and early the next morning.  We rushed through breakfast and washed and put away the dishes; we didn’t want to miss the triumphant entrance of these rare and exotic creatures.

When we arrived at the beach I saw that a huge crowd had lined up at the water’s edge.  I immediately began rehearsing my photography strategy as it would be difficult to get a shot with people two and three deep at the shoreline.

We stood there and waited.

And waited.

And then we waited some more.

15 minutes passed, and then 20.

Twenty five minutes turned into thirty.

Some people started asking, “Will they come?”

Another would reassure them, “Of course they will come.  They always come.”

“How do you know?”

“I asked the lady at the office; she said that they always come.”

“Ok,” followed by a sigh of relief.

I worried that if the dolphins didn’t show that there might be some social revolt amongst the guests.  And I grew bored as well.  Nicole was probably the most excited of all of us.  She kept repeating in her thick English accent, “They’ve gotta come, they just haf to!”  I then made up a rumor and told her (loud enough for all of the other tourists to hear) that the lady at the administration office said that the dolphins probably wouldn’t come today.  I then said that they were probably lost and couldn’t find their way to the Monkey Mia Beach.  Andrea chimed in, “They can’t get lost, they have those electric shock collars around their necks so that they can’t get more than 100 meters from this beach.  Look, you can see the ‘virtual fence’ running underwater.”  At least a dozen people looked towards the water – until we started laughing.

35 minutes…

“Andrea, give me 20 bucks if I walk out into the water to my waist, cup my hands at the water and screech and call like a dolphin and then after a second, I’ll put my ear to the water and yell (to the crowd), ‘the dolphins say that they’re taking the day off today.”  Andrea had a smile on her face; Nicole and the rest of the tourists scowled back at us.

Again Nicole protested, “No!  They’re cammin I tell ya!”

I looked up and down the beach at the hundreds of tourists as we passed 40 minutes.  I began to think that the real show wasn’t in the water but was on the land.

And finally, a few minutes later, a dorsal fin broke the surface to the applause of the entire crowd.

The crowd surged forward.  Those lucky few in the front row pushed in so far that they were up to their ankles in the water.  The dolphins seemed to like the attention and they swam back and forth in front of the gaggle of tourists.  I was very pleased that I was able to capture the elbows, shoulders and the tops of heads of all of the tourists around me.  I thought that they added just the perfect amount of foreground with the dolphins serving as my background.  Surely it would be silly to go out into nature to photograph dolphins without the chance of capturing some human body part in the frame!

As I shot so many dozens of photos of elbows and dolphins I began to think that my photos of dolphins blocked by people must be the best in the world.  Thoughts of being published in National Geographic danced through my head, maybe even a Pulitzer!  Indeed, I was one of the lucky few to see these rare and exotic creatures up close and from behind a wall of tourists.

Another pair of dolphins worked their way towards me; I spun the polarized filter on my Minolta 28-70mm f2.8 lens so that the reflection of the water would be invisible; a polarized filter lets you look down into the water just like magic.  I had my opening in the crowd, my camera was all set up and the dolphin was just about to cross into my field of view…

And then the most splendid thing happened.

The attractive and charismatic dolphin bouncer stood right in front of me.  How thrilling!  I was so excited that I had the opportunity to shoot this rare and exotic animal and in the same frame be able to catch some of his human entourage.  These dolphin bouncers must have the best job in the world.  Not only do they get to work daily next to dolphins, but hundreds of people pay big bucks to take their photos with the dolphins.  After a few shots I hit the replay button on my camera; I could hardly believe my luck – not only a dolphin but the dolphin bouncer captured in the same shot.  What a great photo!

Since posting, a fellow traveler has emailed to inform me that the dolphin bouncer above is actually a woman.  Hmm, not sure if I can see that…

As the dolphins moved their way down the crowd, the dolphin handler did not disappoint; he followed right along to make sure that everyone could have him in their dolphin photo.  I thought to myself what a generous and charismatic person to allow his photo to be taken so that everyone can enjoy having him and the dolphin in their cherished holiday photos along with his microphone, sunglasses and stylish hat!

After the man moved on I saw some more dolphins approaching and was worried that I might actually catch a photo of them alone.  My mind raced and I wondered, “Where is their entourage?”  But then I saw that another dolphin bouncer, a woman.  She was just a little shorter than the man.  She walked along with the other two dolphins so that everyone could get a photo of the dolphins and their human handler.  And these handlers were so talkative!  They talked and talked and talked and told so many interesting tid bits of information that I can’t remember a single one.  I’m glad that we didn’t have just the sound of the ocean lapping on the sand or the cheerful chirps of the dolphins.  No, we had so much more!  We had these charismatic and friendly dolphin handlers to talk and talk and fill in all of that silence and nature.

Eventually the dolphin security guards moved on to talk to some people and there was nothing left to shoot except the dolphins by themselves.  I know that these photos aren’t as good as the others – without the humans and all – but I decided to include them to show my skills in photographing in a wide range of conditions.

And finally a solo dolphin swam up.  I saw his eye dart around and I was sure that he was looking for one of his entourage.  I suspect that he was thinking that he wouldn’t want to be photographed alone and wished that one of his human friends could stand in front of him while the tourists fired their cameras.  I think he looked rather upset and if you look close enough, you might just see a tear in his eye.


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Shell Beach

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