To get up close to these charismatic cetaceans, you can head west into pristine wilderness or to a gorgeous island resort off Brisbane. Our duelling experts make the compelling case for both.
By Amy Cooper
When you're mixing with the ocean's most charismatic mammal, it's all about (echo)location. Dolphins demand a spectacular backdrop, and there's none more so than Monkey Mia, in Western Australia's stunning Shark Bay World Heritage Site. You'll be playing waiter to a ripper flipper in a pristine paradise of turquoise water, red dunes and white beaches.
Monkey Mia's dolphins inhabit Shark Bay's 2.2 million hectares of idyllic marine landscape - a swathe almost the size of France but containing fewer than 1000 people. Better still, it's home to double that number of dolphins, ten times more dugongs, plus abundant sharks, rays, turtles, rare and endangered birds and the world's largest colony of stromatolites - a living fossil that's 3.5-billion years old and the planet's oldest living organism (outside of the forthcoming US presidential election).
In this beautiful place, you're dramatically outnumbered by some of the earth's rarest and most precious non-humans. Instead of Brisbane just across the water, there's a vast wilderness playground. That's a win-fin situation.
To savour the scale, you can meander north from Perth by road for nine hours, but I'd rather be there sooner, via a two-hour flight into Shark Bay Airport, 10 minutes from Monkey Mia.
The ranger-led morning dolphin feeding sessions in crystal-clear shallows deliver all the thrills of an up-close encounter, but in an eco-endorsed setting in the world's foremost dolphin research facility, strictly supervised by the dolphins' Parks and Wildlife entourage. When you gather on the sands for an audience with the Indo-Pacific bottlenose stars, you'll meet dolphin dames including proud mama of Monkey Mia, Piccolo, and her nine-month-old calf, Oboe, who has a better celebrity offspring name than any Kardashian or Beckham. He's cuter, too.
Instead of Brisbane just across the water, there's a vast wilderness playground. That's a win-fin situation.
Your own creature comforts are catered for at RAC Monkey Mia Resort, where you can install your entire pod in a beachfront villa or choose from accommodation at every price tag: romantic rooms for two, dorm digs from $40 a night and powered or unpowered camping sites. There's an on-site restaurant and bar with a big beachfront beer garden from which you can observe your marine hosts frolicking in the nearby waters.
On Peron Peninsula (Wulyibidi), the middle land mass of Shark Bay's 'w' shape, Monkey Mia is a sure fin for further adventures in dolphin territory. Dive deep into underwater wonderlands, swim and snorkel, take a wildlife cruise to meet dugongs, rays and turtles - or set sail at sunset for the west coast sky's best free show.
There's so much fun in the dolphins' domain, you'll certainly return for more. Monkey Mia, here we go again...
By Mal Chenu
Hand-feeding dolphins (which is called "provisioning" by marine biologists to let you know they only provide snacks so the dolphins don't become dependent, and because they are really frustrated etymologists) is a soul-nourishing experience. Because it's such a cool thing to do, especially for kids, you want to get to it as soon as possible. Which is the problem with Monkey Mia - once you get beyond the black stump you are about halfway there.
To get to Monkey Mia you have to fly to Perth and then to Shark Bay Airport, which is hardly a hub. I'm not even sure if it has a runway, let alone an oyster and champagne bar. As the "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" chorus strikes home and your soul is crushed rather than nourished, you'll quickly realise you should have chosen Tangalooma Island Resort on Moreton Island for your cetacean alimentation elation.
Tangalooma is a relaxing, 75-minute, are-we-there-yet-free catamaran cruise across Moreton Bay from Brisbane. The resort faces west and offers stunning sunsets over the water, best enjoyed at one of the seven cafes, bars and restaurants - especially the excellent Asian cuisine at Fire & Stone - or from the balcony of your hotel suite.
As good as the facilities are at Tangalooma, the superstars are the bottle-nosed celebrities who cruise into the jetty area in the early evening. Orderly lines (of humans) are formed in knee-deep water and everyone gets to feed one and come away with their own dolphin tale.
The staff know these guys personally; by name, back story and personality.
All the mammals here are family. The staff know these guys personally; by name, back story and personality. Nari, for example, whom I had the privilege of provisioning with a couple of herring, has survived a fishing line entanglement and a shark attack, despite losing a chunk of his head in the latter encounter. Nari and I formed an immediate connection. You could say we just clicked. Anyone who tells you the Monkey Mia dolphins are better is spouting nonsense.
Tangalooma has literally dozens of other cool things to do, such as whale-watching cruises, scenic helicopter flights, parasailing, kayaking, fishing and sailing, as well as snorkelling, diving and even sea-scootering on the coral-encrusted wrecks just off the shore.
You can feed the pelicans, go on segway and quad-biking beach tours, and tour the bushland interior, which includes sand tobogganing down a steep dune. You can explore the protected marine park in a glass bottom boat and see dolphins (of course) plus marine turtles, dugongs, stingrays, wobbegong sharks and more fish than you can shake a chip at.
For further endorsalment of the Tangalooma dolphins, check out the podcast. And if you still can't decide, just flipper coin.