For most of us, feeding a wild dolphin is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but for Sue Hassard, the Dolphin Care Manager at Tangalooma Island Resort, preparing dinner and feeding 10 bottlenose dolphins is part of her every working day. We went waist deep into water, armed with plenty of herring, to discover why Sue has the coolest job in the world.
What’s a typical day in the ‘office’ for you?
We run a variety of environmental and animal awareness programs on the island to promote marine animal conservation. Every day we feed the seabirds, run dolphin behaviour presentations and kookaburra-feeding programs before gearing up for the nightly dolphin feed.
How many dolphins do you feed?
We have up to 10 wild dolphins that come in nightly for a feed. Importantly, we don’t have them in captivity, stored somewhere at the resort – the dolphins are 100 per cent free and choose to visit each night.
What do you feed them?
We’re conscious to keep the dolphins wild and not tame them in any way, so we only feed them 10-20 per cent of their daily intake. As you can imagine, a 200-kilogram adult dolphin gets through a lot of fish! We feed the dolphins herring which is a fish high in fat and low in bone content, and the dolphins just love them.
At night, each dolphin naturally queues up for the guests to feed them, so the staff can control how much each dolphin gets. We don’t feed the babies because it’s important that the little ones also learn to hunt their own fish.
At the moment you have two calves, have you seen much breeding in your time?
We’ve had a few births in the crew and we keep a Tangalooma Family Tree to follow their stories. We don’t run any special tests to decipher if they are pregnant, so it’s almost always a surprise to us. We generally know when they’re carrying because they blow out to twice their size.
With 16 years dolphin feeding at Tangalooma, what moments stand out?
We had an eventful night when Bella came into the feeding area with four fishing hooks caught in her mouth. We know that dolphins are opportunistic feeders, so with fish stocks declining, she probably jumped on a line and swallowed the lot. She came into the feeding area, tangled in wire and the staff managed to untangle her and remove the hooks.
We also had a busy few weeks when Nari came off second best in a shark attack. We had a huge rescue mission and had to transport him to Sea World for treatment. Every weekend I’d go to Sea World to stay with him, because he was distressed and out of his environment. We had to hand-deliver his fish because he wasn’t accustomed to the Sea World food. It took him weeks to get his strength back and for vets to clear him for return but he eventually returned to the shores of Moreton Island and came back to feed at Tangalooma.
Have you been able to develop special relationships with the dolphins?
Definitely! Dolphins are able to recognise voices, they have dog-like acoustic abilities and can even recognise their own name. In the wild they use an echolocation sense, a special seventh sense, which allows them to identify bone structures of what’s in their line of sight so they can even recognise their feeder under the water. It’s incredible.
Do you have favourites?
How could I possibly choose a favourite? They’re all special and have such different personalities. At the moment Tinkerbell is the bossy alpha female and the matriarch of the bunch. We’ve seen Storm become a bit cheeky and try to assert his dominance over Zephyr. Storm is a bit small for his age, so we know as soon as Zephyr outgrows him he’ll get his own back. Echo and Nari chase each other around as well which is fun to watch.
None to date but we are very careful. Dolphins can weigh up to 200 kilograms – made of heavy bones, fat and blubber, and they are incredibly powerful. We take lots of precautions and don’t let guests touch the dolphins to prevent any mishaps. We’ve also noticed the dolphins are pretty careful themselves. Even if there’s a big swell they can remain stationary for feeding so they don’t knock guests off their feet.
What can we do to see more dolphins in the wild?
There are plenty of things everyone can do to assist wild dolphins. In the perfect world dolphins could live up to 50-60 years but we’ve seen a dramatic decline in life expectancy to 10-25 years due to low fish stocks, more people using the oceans and increased population in coastal areas. We can all play a part in improving the cleanliness of the water ways which would encourage more dolphins to use our waterways.
People should always:
- Put their rubbish in the bin so it doesn’t end up in Moreton Bay;
- Fish responsibly; and
- Keep an eye out for dolphins in the waterways. If dolphins are hungry they will take live bait off a hook and swallow it, or if they get too close to the boat, suffer damage from the propeller.
Images courtesy of Tangalooma Island Resort.