Let's Meet The Resident Dolphins Of Port Stephens

If you swing by Nelson Bay in Port Stephens anytime of the year, you're in for a real treat – a sneak peek into the entrancing world of the bottlenose dolphins. Living it up in the waters within the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park are approximately 90 to 130 Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins, the cherished locals of this region.

They've basically made Port Stephens their permanent crib, and they're always down for some ‘fin-tastic’ interactions. If you’re looking for a memorable thing to do in New South Wales, then head over to Nelson Bay for some Port Stephens dolphin watching fun.

But for now, we’re gonna take you on a virtual tour to meet the resident dolphins of Port Stephens. And by the end you’ll see why they have stolen the hearts of all who meet them, and why a dolphin cruise in Nelson Bay is as popular as the surf breaks here.

What are Bottlenose Dolphins?

A Bottlenose Dolphin coming out of the water to greet the cruisers

Bottlenose Dolphins are small cetaceans that fall into the category of 'toothed' whales (spoiler alert: all dolphins are whales). They got their name from the unique short, rounded snout, which bears a striking resemblance to, yep you guessed it, a bottle.

Port Stephens is home to three cool species of dolphins. The ones you're most likely to see near Port Stephens and just outside the Heads are the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins. These are the regulars in the area and can be easily spotted on a cruise. They're quite common in the shallow coastal waters of the Indian and Western Pacific oceans.

But if you venture out of the Heads and hit the open coastal beaches to the north and south of Nelson Bay, you might come across some common dolphins and common Bottlenose Dolphins. They like to hang around here.

Bonus Tip: An underrated activity you can do here is to combine a Port Stephens dolphin cruise with a sunset. The dolphins putting on a ‘splash-tacular’ show, with a serenading sunset in the backdrop – it’s a match made in heaven!

Unique Identification

From Ringo, Paul, George, and John of Soldiers Point  (named after the legendary Beatles) to well-known residents like Nicky, Kuttoo, Shirley, and Flopper, most of the dolphins here have names! Many of them have unique marks, cuts, scars, or notches on their fins. For example, Shirley is easily identifiable by his (yep Shirley is a ‘he’) missing dorsal tip.

These distinctive features allow both researchers and dolphin enthusiasts to easily identify specific members within the posse. Keep your eyes peeled during a dolphin cruise in Nelson Bay, and see you if you can spot some of them!

Best Way to See Them

Guests getting a close encounter with dolphins on a Port Stephens cruise

Before diving deeper, if you want to get up close and personal with these A-listers, you're in luck. There are plenty of dolphin-watching tours in Port Stephens that give you a front-row seat to all the ‘flipper-flappin’ action. These tours provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the dolphins in their natural habitat – you'll learn about their habits, check out their antics, and see the efforts in place to keep them safe and sound.

But a dolphin cruise is not just a thrilling adventure; it's also an educational, entertaining, and eco-friendly experience, making it one of the best Port Stephens activities.

A Sneak-Peek Into The Bottlenoses

What do they eat?

The Bottlenose Dolphins are pretty serious when it comes to their meals. They chow down up to 4-9% of their size, and enjoy seafood like fish, squid, and octopus, depending on what's up for grabs that season. But regardless, these dolphins are always game for a seafood feast, eating at least 8-15 kg of it daily!

Here’s the most interesting part of their dining experience. To find their treats they have a couple of tricks up their sleeve, the clicking sounds and the heavily relied upon echolocation. These echoes can travel up to 200m through the waters, find an object, and then bounce back to the dolphin. This gives the dolphin the lowdown on how big the prey is, how fast it's going, where it's heading, and how far away it is. It's like having a built-in GPS! And they live to play this game in groups!

Can they sleep?
Some of you may already know that dolphins can’t fall asleep like us – they need to come to the surface for air. Scientists have done some digging and have come to the conclusion that these playful creatures take power naps. They shut down one half of their brain at a time and do this sleep thing for about eight hours a day.

And while they’re in sleep mode, they can float along, take a leisurely swim and pop up every now to breathe. Or, you may even spot one hanging at the surface with its blowhole out, almost like sunbathing! It’s safe to say that they’re masters at this.

Smell, hearing & tasting
Dolphins aren't exactly equipped for smelling because their blowhole, which is technically their nose, stays sealed when they're underwater. Their sense of smell is non-existent. But incredibly, they make up for this shortcoming with their exceptionally sensitive tongue and sharp ears. Their tongue has taste buds that can detect various chemicals in the water.

In relation to hearing, the science dudes believe that sound waves travel through the water, enter their lower jaws, then make their way to the inner ear for some brain processing. We’d say they're winning at life!

Breeding cycle
The water-loving bottlenose dolphins have a rather interesting dating and family life. When it comes to baby-making, they're not in a hurry, and the time of breeding varies depending on the geographic location. The ladies wait till they're around 9 to 10 years old to start a family, while the fellas hold off a bit longer, usually till they're 10 to 13.

The males put on some serious moves to impress the ladies, and when the girl finally says "you're the one", they get down to some underwater lovin'. About a year later, a tiny calf is born – head or rather, tail first! While the Humpback Whales have a 11-month pregnancy, dolphins take a more laid-back approach with a year-long gestation period. 

Spiritual Connection
The Worimi people have a strong spiritual connection with the plants and animals of Port Stephens, and the same goes with dolphins, or Guparr, as they call it in the Gathang language. They have a unique bond with these intelligent beings – it is said that in the past, wise elders would have heart-to-heart talks with the dolphins. They looked out for each other and had meaningful conversations about food sources, weather etc. Even today, some of the elders continue this emotional bond!

To wrap it up, the Bottlenose Dolphins of Port Stephens have become the unofficial mascots of this coastal haven. Their fun-loving nature, together with the conservative efforts of the community to protect them, makes Port Stephens a no-brainer  for anyone looking to have a swell time in New South Wales, or even Australia for that matter.