Season begins for Dolphin Discovery Centre swim tours

Experience the adventure: Dolphin Discovery Centre swim tour guide Kathy Thomson. Photo: Pip Waller.
Experience the adventure: Dolphin Discovery Centre swim tour guide Kathy Thomson. Photo: Pip Waller.

When 63-year-old Kathy Thomson retired 11 years ago, re-entering the workforce was not on her radar.

She had spent over 30 years working as both a physical education school teacher, and running a horse riding stable in Boyanup.

But as a diver and windsurfer, Ms Thomson couldn't stay away from the ocean, and joined the Dolphin Discovery Centre as a volunteer.

"It took me all of about 10 seconds to realise I needed to be on the boat and in the water," Ms Thomson laughed.

"I have a love of animals and people, so I thought I need to help out on the swim tours."

"Since then I've done so many things with the centre; stranded whale training, oil spill response training and underwater photography."

'Magical memories': Around 120 dolphins call Koombana Bay home. Photo: Supplied.

'Magical memories': Around 120 dolphins call Koombana Bay home. Photo: Supplied.

Her first "magical" encounter was with a dolphin named Mrs Aruka, who has now unfortunately passed.

Ms Thomson said she was the last person in the water when Mrs Aruka swam right up to her.

"She was so close to me that everyone on the boat was worried that she was going to bite my face," she said.

"But she was only looking right at me, and I was looking right at her, and I could feel her echolocation going through my body.

"The dolphins really give us a gift by coming to us. It's a really magical moment."

It was Mrs Aruka, Scout, Hunter, Razor, Nosey, Shanty and Banjo, who ultimately changed Ms Thomson's mind about retirement, and 11 years later, she is a swim tour guide at the Dolphin Discovery Centre.

To go out and see dolphins in the wild and have them swim up and look at you is a gift from the dolphin world. Because they so don't have to do that, but they do.

Kathy Thomson

The life of a guide 

The Dolphin Discovery Centre offers up to two 'Swim with the Dolphins' guided swim tours daily, from Wednesday to Monday, running yearly from November to April.

While the regulation is that swimmers must be at least 50 metres away from wild dolphins, the Dolphin Discovery Centre has a licence allowing dolphins to approach the swimmers, but not the other way around.

As the Koombana Bay dolphins are wild, there is also no guarantee that participants will see a dolphin.

Starting around 7.15am, Ms Thomson completes her pre-tour checks including organising guest paperwork, checking shark alerts and weather updates.

Meanwhile volunteers greet the guests and equip them with wetsuits and snorkeling equipment.

During Ms Thomson's pre-tour briefing, she tells all the guests to bring their "good luck, hope and patience" on the tour.

"Our job is to look for dolphins who are resting, we don't interfere with any who are fighting, mating or feeding," Ms Thomson said.

"We simply slip into the water near them and wait for them to come to us, if they are interested.

"It should probably be called dolphins swimming with people, not people swimming with dolphins."

Up to 20 visitors, four observers and crew visit both The Cut and the power station as part of the boat tour, which is steered by skipper Mark Licastro.

Swimmers quietly enter the water and await curious dolphins to recognise their presence.

After a few hours of watching the dolphins interact and swim, swimmers return to shore.

Ms Thomson and swim participants, with 'The Defiant' in the background.

Ms Thomson and swim participants, with 'The Defiant' in the background.

Dolphins in the bay

The Dolphin Discovery Centre has around 700 dolphins on its catalogue, from Busselton to Binningup.

While she enjoys the presence of all the dolphins, Ms Thomson has her favourites, including Hunter, who has been with Ms Thomson since birth.

"She's been swimming with me all of her life.

"She's now 10 or 11, and it's exciting because she's sexually mature now, last summer she went off and played with the boys so I'm looking forward to January to see if she'll have a calf."

Ms Thomson put their presence in Koombana Bay down to the bay's ability to offer protection and shallow water depths, making it the "perfect" habitat for food.

She referred to the 120 dolphins who frequent the area as a "hidden gem" to Bunbury.

"I think a lot of people still don't know what we've got here - we have dolphins who choose to come to the beach and choose to interact with us because it's all on their terms.

"This is right on our door step, and on any morning through the summer there is the possibility that there will be a dolphin in the bay.

"And provided the dolphins are continued to be treated the right way, they're happy to be here with us and will continue to do so."

'A magical moment': Up close and personal with the dolphins at The Cut. Video supplied by the Dolphin Discovery Centre.

Wild vs captivity

While Western Australia does not have any dolphins kept in captivity, Ms Thomson said it was "heart breaking" to know there were dolphins in the world still in that situation.

"I know now how intelligent they are," she said. "...it is good to know that with education out there, that appetite to keep them in captivity is diminishing."

For the Koombana Bay dolphins, Ms Thomson said the biggest threat to the population was recreational boats wanting to see dolphins up close.

"They really want to see dolphins and I get that, but it's problematic when people are chasing them and pushing them away with their boats," she said.

"We need to remember that dolphin mums especially need to rest and be able to nurse their calves, so it's important that we let dolphins come to us, instead of pushing them away.

"The other real problem is people feeding dolphins, because if they start to learn that recreational boats means food, then they will come too close and can get injured by propellers or tangled up in fishing line."

To help combat these issues, Ms Thomson works as a volunteer on the centre's research boat compiling data on the local dolphins.

Kathy Thomson with Dolphin Discovery Centre volunteers Meg Diment, Shane Garton and Jilly Sime with a dolphin in the background.

Kathy Thomson with Dolphin Discovery Centre volunteers Meg Diment, Shane Garton and Jilly Sime with a dolphin in the background.

The future for Kathy

In the 11 years Ms Thomson has been involved with the Dolphin Discovery Centre, she said she still gets a buzz every time, which is evident on her tours when she constantly yells 'dolphin!' in excitement.

"Yes I'm 63 and I get tired, but I can't see myself ever leaving this place," she said. "Dolphins don't have to be anywhere near us but they choose to be and I'm sure they know that they are safe because they wouldn't keep coming back if they were feeling threatened.

"I think they definitely recognise me and the boat by now. I love the tours and the education and the research, and I can't ever see myself leaving. How could you not be passionate about dolphins?"

This story From retiree to dolphin tour guide: Kathy Thomson shares the experience of a lifetime first appeared on Bunbury Mail.