Monkey Mia. Eco or
Radio National with Alexandra de Blas on Saturday 24/10/98
Monkey Mia. Eco or Economical tourism?
Is the world famous Monkey Mia in danger of being too good too be true? The
people friendly dolphins of Monkey Mia on the west coast of western Australia
are known the world over. Yet is the highly organised dolphin interaction
proving to be too popular. In this special report Ross Hampton looks at the
blurred line between ecotourism and economical tourism.
Details or Transcript:
Eco-tourism has been the fastest growing segment of the market this decade, and
that can mean anything from a wilderness trek to spotting kangaroos from a
helicopter. The whole notion of making a dollar out of the environment brings
with it some vexing and difficult questions, such as when does admiration become
exploitation? What do you do if you become too successful, and numbers threaten
to destroy the experience?
Perhaps one of the best examples of the issues confronting those who seek to
make a living by bringing people into close contact with nature is the
multi-million dollar business which has grown up around the Monkey Mia dolphins
on the west coast of Australia. Despite the incredible isolation, interacting
with the dolphins has become one of the most sought after eco-tourist
experiences anywhere in the world. The problem of course is that the more
crowded it gets, the more the whole nature of the experience changes. Ross
Hampton prepared this report.
Ross Hampton: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was smart when a programme portraying an
ostensibly wild animal willingly communing with people was great television. But
while the TV star was chasing smugglers and making millions for MGM, on the
other side of the world, his Shark Bay cousins were spawning an eco-tourism
industry which would eventually be bigger than Flipper himself.
Every day they arrive in their dusty cars at the entrance to a special strip of
beach on the edge of the West Australian desert. Most have driven more than 1000
km from Perth, many have come much further, and there's only one reason.
"To you see one jumping round out there, flips out on his back" "Yeah, they're
coming in there There's some people obviously crowding down to see them "
They read, sit on the sand, or drink cup after cup of coffee at the
strategically placed beachside restaurant,
once the dolphins arrive, it's a quick tourist dash to the water, only to be
corralled into a straight line on the
edge by the even quicker rangers.
"Could you people just come back and keep your line a little bit
straighter."Monkey Mia does offer the chance
to see a dolphin close up sometimes, but if you imagined you were going to swim
with or feed the dolphins,
you're living in the past. Roxanne Shadbolt heads up the Monkey Mia office of
the Department of
Conservation and Land Management or CALM.
"If you have an isolated stretch of beach and one or two people who come on an
occasional basis, there's
obviously no threat to the animals, but with the number of people that we now
have, you must regulate to
The transition of Monkey Mia from unmanaged natural experience to highly
organised 'dolphin interaction', as it's now very carefully called, is the story
of what happens when ecology tourism meets economic tourism, and whether the two
are compatible. Monkey Mia is named after the aboriginal Mia Mia and The Monkey,
a pearl cutter which used to moor here 30 years ago. In those days it was a
fishing beach, and the dolphins used to trawl the shallows harvesting the
undersized catch thrown back. The dolphins became so used to company, their
legend. In two decades, city folk were coming from all over to swim with the
dolphins, bumping over rough dirt tracks and camping out in their cars. Ten
years ago, progress caught up with Monkey Mia, the road was tarred and the
Monkey Mia resort was built. Sand was even trucked in to cover the mud and make
a much more attractive dolphin beach. Tourist numbers soared to 125,000 a year
before they fell back to around 100,000 annually.
"Good morning, welcome to Monkey Mia. How are you?"
"We're very well thank you."
"You're after a day pass ?"
"Well, we've come to see the dolphins."
"Well the day pass is five dollars each "
Despite being a world heritage area, the dolphins are not actually an endangered
species. They don't even swim in a national park. You wouldn't therefore expect
to find a Conservation and Land Management presence here, and there's no State
or Federal funding for the rangers. Their salaries and all the running costs are
covered by the gate fee, which raises the whole question of dolphin
profiteering, mutterings denied by manager Roxanne Shadbolt: "When you have
something like the dolphin interaction programme, that's obviously very staff
intensive so it goes
towards the payment of having four rangers and some gatekeepers obviously as
"Just want to know how we're going for reservations tonight."
"We're fully booked - and we've got two people on the waiting list."
"Okay what time are ."
Dean Massey, manager of the Dolphin Resort, the only accommodation at Monkey
Mia, has the nice problem of not having enough room.
"We have a lot of people in Shark Bay during the school holiday period, but
we've actually arrived at the reception late at night, there's no accommodation
here and they've been sleeping in the cars overnight.
A $29 million expansion will soon see the resort able to accommodate 300 more
people. So the dolphin lovers now arrive coachload after coachload every
morning, and they head straight to that hallowed fifty metres of beach.
"Okay, it's telling you 'I'm the boss, watch out'"
"The actual noises they make come from the mallon, which is just in front, right
before the nose."
The problem now confronting the joint managers of the area, Conservation and
Land Management is that they've perhaps been too successful in opening up this
"It was a shock when we got there to see how regulated it was and we thought,
well gee, what's this going to do to us. and we were quite disappointed I must
say." Kevin Best is the owner of the Blue Dolphin Caravan Park in the nearby
sleepy village of Denim, the only real town for 350 km.
"Hello, how are you? Have you got any accommodation for the night for the wife
and four kids?"
Kevin bought the caravan park a year or so ago, partly because 5000 people stay
here each year, but he says he made a mistake assuming the dolphin experience
was the same as he remembered. "There are about I suppose thirty odd people here
now and I know you have bigger groups as well. Do you ever think the dolphins
think there's too many?"
"The amount of people you have here now and I've had up to 500 is not a problem
because they can leave at any time. They just come in when they want to and
leave when they want to."
"I think if you came 20 years ago it would have been better. Now you're getting
too many people - I was standing back second to third deep. You might as well go
and watch them in a zoo."
There is some evidence that a negative message is leeching out of Shark Bay. The
total number of visitors has dropped over the last few years, and perhaps even
more telling, the percentage of Australians who make up the total is
diminishing. Each year more of those knee-deep in the water are from overseas,
"I read that ten years ago more dolphins come in and they're not economic." The
contradiction in the mix of ecology and economy at Monkey Mia is evident three
times a day at the dolphin beach. Although it's now illegal for the public to
feed dolphins, the rangers give them a few fish each day to make those holiday
snaps memorable. That's despite the fact that handfeeding wildlife is strictly
against CALM policy in national parks. But if the dolphins knew just how much
money was being milked from each of their visits, they would probably demand
many more fish. Tourism in
this region is worth $57 million a year, and the dolphins at Monkey Mia are one
of the key drawcards. That's quite a load for very few dorsal fins to carry.
There are hundreds of dolphins in Shark Bay, but what most people don't realise
is that it's only members of one pod which come to the beach to make the
tourists' day. Dean Massey, manager of the Dolphin Resort again:
"There's a lot of money riding on the back of the dolphins"
"You must have nightmares about that, you come out each morning, and what about
if you go two days and they haven't come in? You'd be sitting here on the beach"
"Oh yeah, well, everyone frets, especially during the summer period when you've
got the low tides. There'd be four or five days a year when the dolphins don't
come in, and the days go past and you think where are the dolphins? But they're
Which throws up another conundrum of this place. The resort, and not the
Department of Conservation and Land Management, pays for the researchers who
live on site and keep a weather eye on the precious dolphins. And the resort
paid for a vet when one of the key performers was bitten by a shark. It also
explains why the resort and CALM spread the attention to the other extremely
worth drawcards of this world heritage
"You can have the dolphin experience but after you do that, you can take one of
"And again, just over here to the right hand side a group of dolphins of about
half a dozen there with their calves, some of them have got a couple of
youngsters with them"
Pushing silently over the pristine waters of Shark Bay is so mesmerising it
silences small talk. However, no matter how many dolphins are photographed, most
of those on board today will believe their Monkey Mia visit a success if and
only if the dolphins have come into shore to visit them.
The heart of the appeal of Monkey Mia is not about seeing a dolphin, it's the
thrill of the notion that it's a meeting these wild creatures want, and the
overwhelming feeling that communication between person and animal are very
close, which means no matter how much the guidebooks extol the glories of
dugongs and the seagrass, the tens of thousands will keep coming only as long as
the dolphins keep reappearing and they get close enough to look each other in
Alex deBlas: Ross Hampton and he prepared that report from Monkey Mia in Western
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