Dolphin watching with a difference in Bunbury

The Dolphin Discovery Centre is bringing the ocean and its inhabitants closer to people of all abilities.

The Dolphin Discovery Centre Bunbury, in Western Australia, takes accessible tourism to the next level – bringing wheelchair users near to wild dolphins.

‘It’s easy to make a building accessible,’ says Axel Grossman, DDC Bunbury’s Marketing Manager. ‘It’s not so easy to make the beach and ocean accessible. It’s not so easy to get a person in a wheelchair next to a wild dolphin – and free of charge too.’

Yet this is an adventure the waterfront centre offers most days using its beach wheelchair.

The DDC sits on Koombana Bay, home to more than 100 wild bottlenose dolphins. The animals often swim in the shallow waters beside the centre, where there’s an ethically managed ‘dolphin interaction zone’.

People can line up in the sea to be near the playful aquatic creatures. With the immersible beach wheelchair, people with limited mobility can enjoy these close encounters, too.

Making accessibility the standard

A 2-hour drive south of Perth, the DDC knows all about making its building accessible. A $12.3 million upgrade in 2018 created a new interpretative centre. Inside, there are fish and coral aquariums, a digital dolphinarium, interactive displays and more.  

‘We’ve got lifts everywhere,’ says Grossman. ‘We’ve got wide doors everywhere, we’ve got push buttons everywhere, we’ve got accessible facilities.’

With such a 360-degree approach to accessibility, the DDC Bunbury was an ideal champion for the Austrade-led Accessible Tourism Mentoring Pilot Project.

A day at the beach for all

Where the Bunbury centre shines, Grossman says, is in providing access to the beach. There’s a new ramp down from the waterfront promenade to the sand. Accessible matting helps wheelchair users and other people with limited mobility cross the sand to the water. People with low vision find the accessible matting useful, too.

Many people with disability travel to Bunbury with companions or carers. Staff and volunteers are on hand to support.

The centre has also made its hot showers accessible. People exiting the sea in the beach wheelchair can get warm and dressed quickly and in comfort.

Visitors of all abilities can enjoy interacting with the star attraction at the Dolphin Discovery Centre. Visitors of all abilities can enjoy interacting with the star attraction at the Dolphin Discovery Centre.

An accessible attraction in an accessible city

A community-focused, not-for-profit organisation, the DDC sees accessibility as simply a matter of equity. ‘It’s the right thing to do,’ says Grossman.  

The recent redevelopment of the DDC was also part of a wider accessible tourism precinct. Bunbury has plans to become the most accessible regional city in Australia. The city council, state government and other partners have redeveloped the Koombana Bay foreshore. As well as including the DDC, the redevelopment installed accessible footpaths, seating and other features.

The Koombana pedestrian bridge seamlessly links the area around the DDC to the city centre. Separately, the council offers its own beach wheelchairs and an 'all-terrain’ wheelchair attachment.

Says Grossman: ‘This whole beautiful development has really opened Bunbury to tourism and put a focus on accessibility.’

Proud to offer a bucket-list experience

Grossman describes being in the sea near dolphins as a special, ‘emotional’ experience. You can feel the water moving around the dolphins. You can hear their whistles to each other. You can even hear the clicks as they use echo location to navigate.

‘This is an experience on many people’s bucket list,’ says Grossman. So, it doesn’t matter if only a handful of the centre’s 80,000 visitors a year are wheelchair users. ‘We’re very proud to be able to give everyone the opportunity here.’

With the centre seeing its future as surer now, after some reported uncertainty, it has plans for greater accessibility. The boat it uses for dolphin-watching eco-cruises in the bay has a wheelchair space. However, there’s a small step when boarding, so not all wheelchair users can ride. The centre hopes one day to offer fully accessible dolphin-watching cruises, perhaps off a jetty. ‘We would love to do more in future,’ says Grossman.

Learn more 

Improving the accessibility of tourism destinations and experiences is a priority of THRIVE 2030, Australia’s visitor economy strategy. 

Under THRIVE 2030, the Austrade-led Accessible Tourism Mentoring Pilot Project supported 110 tourism operators around Australia to improve accessibility and inclusion thanks to funding from the states, territories and the Commonwealth. The Dolphin Discovery Centre Bunbury was one of the accessible tourism champions for the project.

The project led to the WELCOME Framework, our guide to help tourism businesses become more accessible and inclusive. Learn more about the WELCOME Framework.

Go further, faster with Austrade

Austrade’s Go Global Toolkit helps you learn the export basics, find the right markets and understand market requirements.