BILLIE the wild dolphin shot to fame in the 1980s when she began swimming with racehorses in a South Australian River.
But it is her tail-walking prowess learnt from her captive cousins that lives on in one of the world’s only wild dolphin populations within a major city.
The female bottle-nosed dolphin would swim alongside the horses daily while they were being trained in the Port River in Adelaide, South Australia, earning her international fame. However, she went missing in 1988 and was eventually found trapped in a lock near Glenelg, one of South Australia’s most popular beaches.
Billie was taken to a marine park similar to a small Sea World, treated for her injuries and released back into the wild after living with the performing dolphins for just three weeks.
Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary manager Cristina Vicente said Billie made her way back to the Port River and a few months later was seen tail-walking, a stunt normally only performed in captivity by trained dolphins.
Vicente said Billie and her friend Wave taught about seven of the female Port River dolphins to tail-walk across three generations before Billie’s death in 2009. Some of the dolphins still show off the skill today.
“She learnt to tail-walk by watching the captive dolphins and then she taught the wild dolphins when she was released. There’s no wild population in the world that can do that at the rate that happens in the Port, it’s pretty amazing,” she said.
About 40 wild bottle-nosed dolphins live in a sanctuary in Adelaide’s Port River.
The safe haven was created in 2005 to protect the dolphins from pollution and violent attacks.
Vicente said the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, was created to improve water quality and habitat and protect the dolphins.
“There were a few cases of people shooting and spearing dolphins but there were no persons of interest identified so we were unaware where that anger against the animals was coming from,” she said.
“The water quality has been improving but there is definitely a history there of sediment and water quality that comes from many, many years of industrialisation. There has been an improvement as industries move on but also with better practices from the industries.”
Conservation officers and about 50 volunteers work to educate people and increase public awareness of the dolphins in and around the sanctuary.
It has also become an important tourist attraction with two boat operators taking more than 100,000 people on dolphin cruises to see the wild dolphins in the river.
“There is certainly quite a big percentage of international visitors who come and visit the dolphin sanctuary,” Vicente said.
“We also have two kayak tour operators and a lot of people choose to view the dolphins from the land. It’s one of the most amazing things about the sanctuary is the kind of wildlife experience you can have from land without having to get into a vessel. In some cases it is even better than being in a boat.”
Vicente said the sanctuary provided a unique opportunity see natural behaviours of wild dolphins – including tail-walking - in an urban setting.
“You can arrive by train and see something that otherwise you would have to spend weeks and weeks at sea on research vessels to witness all kinds of behaviours that are pretty amazing. I’m not aware of that privilege anywhere else.
“They all have names because they live so close to the city - we have a great knowledge of their life cycles, who are their brothers and sisters, their practical behaviours and personalities … there’s not many places in the world where you can do that.”
The Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary covers a 118 km² area – about the size of 14,000 soccer pitches. The mangroves, seagrass, saltmarsh, tidal flats, tidal creeks and estuarine rivers in the sanctuary provide vital habitat and food for the dolphins.
“It’s quite shallow so it offers protection from predators like sharks and protection from tides and storms so with the improving water quality and if you look at the whole area it’s actually a pretty amazing area for the dolphins to live in.”
South Australian Environment Minister Ian Hunter said the Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary allowed the resident dolphins to flourish and breed and had become one of Australia’s “natural gems”.
He said the area also attracted about 200 visiting dolphins a year from nearby Gulf St Vincent.
“The Adelaide Dolphin Sanctuary is a prime example of South Australia’s nature based tourism offering, which contributes $1.1 billion a year to our economy,” Hunter said.