Way out west

The West Aus­tralian shire of Shark Bay in­cludes the con­ti­nent’s most westerly point and 22,000sq.km of World Her­itage Area with a mul­ti­tude of plant and an­i­mal species found nowhere else.


World Her­itage–listed Shark Bay is brim­ming with unique species.

The wa­ter is so f lat that boats ap­pear to lev­i­tate over its sur­face as the breeze peters out to the east over pa­prika­coloured soil dot­ted with spinifex. On a perfect day, this World Her­itage Area’s sat­u­rated colours merge into each other like a gar­ish tie-dyed T-shirt.

In a re­gion of as­tound­ing nat­u­ral di­ver­sity and strik­ing an­cient land­scapes, this vis­ual punch leaves a last­ing im­pres­sion. Yet few peo­ple see this re­mote, barely pop­u­lated double penin­sula pro­trud­ing from Western Aus­tralia.

“Shark Bay is a place you have to want to come and see,” says Ch­eryl Cow­ell, Shark Bay World Her­itage project off icer with the state Depart­ment of Bio­di­ver­sity, Con­ser­va­tion and At­trac­tions ( DBCA), for merly the Depart­ment of Parks and Wildlife. “Given it’s 130km off the main drag, peo­ple don’t just come in here on a whim.” Ch­eryl is also the re­gion’s shire pres­i­dent and knows that pro­mot­ing this far-f lung lo­ca­tion that’s al­most half­way up WA’s vast coast­line and a nine-hour drive from Perth – Aus­tralia’s “long­est front drive­way” – presents a chal­lenge.

Wait­ing at the end of that lonely road is a frag­ile en­vi­ron­ment that’s home to: the world’s largest and most di­verse sea­grass mead­ows; about one-eighth of the world’s dugong pop­u­la­tion; a beach built from bil­lions of but­ton-sized shells; and strange, rock-like struc­tures cre­ated by micro­organ­isms that rep­re­sent a liv­ing link to the evo­lu­tion of all life on Earth. It’s this as­ton­ish­ing ma­rine and ter­res­trial mix that earned Shark Bay WA’s f irst World Her­itage list­ing back in 1991. To­day, it re­mains a rar­ity, one of only 21 places in the world to meet all four of UNESCO’s nat­u­ral World Her­itage criteria.

SCRATCH THE WEATH­ERED sur­face and there’s far more here than the ‘shark-in­fested’ sound dis­cov­ered by English ex­plorer and nav­i­ga­tor Wil­liam Dampier, who coined the re­gion’s slightly sin­is­ter name fol­low­ing an un­sched­uled visit in 1699. Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, who ar­rived in the area tens of thou­sands of years ear­lier, know it per­haps more ap­propr iately as Gathaagudu, or Two Bays.

One UNESCO cri­te­rion, “to be out­stand­ing ex­am­ples rep­re­sent­ing major stages of Earth’s his­tory”, is fulf illed by a clus­ter of dark stone-like struc­tures in the wa­ter be­yond the re­gion’s f irst tele­graph sta­tion. Th­ese an­cient stro­ma­to­lites, in the 1320sq.km Hamelin Pool Ma­rine Nature Re­serve, are di­rect de­scen­dants of sin­gle-celled or­gan­isms that ex­isted 3.5 bil­lion years ago and are con­sid­ered to have been cru­cial to the ex­plo­sion of life on Earth. Th­ese pho­to­syn­thetic cyanobac­te­ria con­verted car­bon diox­ide in the air to oxy­gen, cre­at­ing con­di­tions suit­able for more com­plex life forms to evolve.

Jump for­ward to the present day and Shark Bay’s more com­plex mi­cro­bial stacks are the most di­verse and abun­dant stro­ma­to­lites in the world. The wa­ter in which they grow is hy­per­saline – about twice as salty as nor­mal sea wa­ter – the re­sult of a sand­bar called the Faure Sill, which forms across the bay’s en­trance. Rapid evap­o­ra­tion of the shal­low, trapped wa­ter con­cen­trates the salt, pro­vid­ing perfect con­di­tions for the stro­ma­to­lites, which can be viewed from a raised, tri­an­gu­lar board­walk. Sur­rounded by a spongy al­gal mat so del­i­cate it still bears the scars of iron-wheeled wag­ons that carted wool to ships some 90 years ago, the an­cient for­ma­tions grow at a rate of just one-third of a mil­lime­tre a year.

They are, it has to be said, as un­der­whelm­ing to look at as they are in­tel­lec­tu­ally cap­ti­vat­ing. “If you’re a ge­ol­o­gist, they’re awe­some, but if you’re not aware of what they are and their sig­nif icance in the evo­lu­tion of life on Earth, it can be like, ‘Okay, there they are. It’s a rock,’” Cher yl says. “I’ve had peo­ple come into the off ice say­ing, ‘I’ve waited all day, and I didn’t see the stro­ma­to­lites come in.’ I don’t know what they thought they were.”

An in­for­ma­tion panel at the Shark Bay World Her­itage Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre in Den­ham, the re­gion’s sole town, spells out their im­por­tance, mi­nus any su­gar coat­ing: “Hamelin Pool

A breath of warm wind sweeps across Shark Bay, barely mov­ing a grain of the bone-hued sand that fringes the high­lighter-blue ocean here.

“We had a group of Chi­nese ge­ol­o­gists… had saved for years and years to come and see the stro­ma­to­lites.”

is what planet Earth looked like long be­fore we were here – be­fore all mam­mals or birds. Even be­fore di­nosaurs there were stro­ma­to­lites. Th­ese seem­ingly life­less blobs are ac­tu­ally liv­ing mon­u­ments to life on Earth.”

TO­DAY FEWER THAN 1000 peo­ple live in the shire of Shark Bay and Pa­tri­cia Cox is one of them. This re­tired nurse and chef from Ire­land pre­sides over the Hamelin Pool Car­a­van Park and his­toric vil­lage, which neigh­bour the stro­ma­to­lites. She’s seen plenty of sight­seers traipse out to the stro­ma­to­lite board­walk dur­ing the 16 years she’s spent here. Nat­u­rally, the re­ac­tions are var­ied. “We had a group of Chi­nese ge­ol­o­gists who didn’t speak a word of English,” she says. “Their tour guide told me some of them had saved up for years and years to come and see the stro­ma­to­lites. When they saw them, it was like Christmas.”

Orig­i­nally plan­ning to re­tire here, among the aca­cia and arid land­scape, Pa­tri­cia was most at­tracted to Hamelin Pool’s hu­man his­tory. Her tea­rooms and sev­eral small museums are housed within the cor­ru­gated-iron walls of a 133-year-old tele­graph sta­tion, post off ice and post­mas­ter’s res­i­dence. “My aunty was a post­mistress in Ire­land: she worked the switch­board. I was al­ways fas­ci­nated by it, so when I came here I thought, ‘Ooh, this is good,’” Pa­tri­cia re­calls. The col­lec­tion of build­ings makes up Shark Bay’s orig­i­nal town site, home to 38 peo­ple be­fore Den­ham was es­tab­lished.

Bus­loads of daytrip­pers and overnight campers roll up to Pa­tri­cia’s cafe daily, push­ing past signs on the door to pre-empt fre­quently asked ques­tions. (“Yes, we sell f ly nets,” for ex­am­ple.) When she’s not whip­ping up sand­wiches, giv­ing mu­seum tours or send­ing weather reports to the Bureau of Me­te­o­rol­ogy, she can be found tak­ing respite from the sear­ing heat in her small pool. In sum­mer, days have been known to reach 52°C, melt­ing her can­dles into colour­ful wax pud­dles.

Just be­hind the tele­graph sta­tion is an­other odd­ity, an aban­doned quarry that was once a source of house bricks with a dif­fer­ence. Work­ers used long, toothy hand­saws to slice through stone made from tightly com­pressed shells that had cal­cif ied to­gether over time. The bricks were used to build sta­tion home­steads and sev­eral Den­ham land­marks, in­clud­ing the Old Pearler Restau­rant and St An­drew’s Church.

The shells are from the tiny Shark Bay cockle. Piled up on the 60km stretch of nearby Shell Beach in place of sand, they helped Shark Bay meet an­other cri­te­rion for World Her­itage list­ing by pro­vid­ing “an ex­am­ple of su­perla­tive nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena”. DBCA of­fi­cer Roger Whitelaw, one of 25 khaki-shirted staff in the re­gion, crunches over the white ex­panse and scoops up a hand­ful. “The beach can be up to a kilo­me­tre wide, and the shells go down to 10m deep in parts,” he says. “They’ve been build­ing up for 3000 years.”

As for the stro­ma­to­lites, it’s the hy­per­salin­ity in Hamelin Pool that has al­lowed the cock­les to f lour­ish. “The cockle doesn’t have many preda­tors that can sur­vive in that en­vi­ron­ment, only a snail that drills through the shell,” Roger ex­plains.

SADLY, A LACK of preda­tors isn’t true for the ter­res­trial wildlife. On the Shark Bay Road back to Den­ham, at a point where Peron Penin­sula thins to a slen­der neck, Roger pulls over to check the feral-proof fence. As he walks up to the cat­tle grid where the fence meets the bi­tu­men, a so­lar-pow­ered sen­sor sets off a threat­en­ing record­ing of a dog bark. After the fence was put in place in 1995, an in­ten­sive cam­paign be­gan to rid the penin­sula of in­tro­duced species such as goats, foxes and cats. A num­ber of lo­cally ex­tinct species were then re­turned to the area in the hope they would re­colonise the ex-pas­toral sta­tion.

So far, there’s been suc­cess with bil­bies and malleefowl. There are hopes for fu­ture re-es­tab­lish­ments of banded hare-wal­la­bies, western barred bandi­coots, red-tailed phasco­gales and oth­ers. Roger has been part of the teams col­lect­ing mar­su­pi­als from nearby Bernier and Dorre is­lands, un­in­hab­ited specks that con­tain five species of en­dan­gered mam­mals lost on the main­land. “We go trap­ping at night, climb­ing up sand dunes and cliffs on foot. We stay on a boat for two weeks. It’s a tricky op­er­a­tion,” he says .“The is­lands are just amaz­ing… un­touched and un­con­tam­i­nated, with a beau­ti­ful coast­line and beau­ti­ful reefs .”

Shark Bay’s flora and fauna di­ver­sity owes much to its lo­ca­tion at the bound­aries of three dif­fer­ent cli­matic zones. “It’s why we get so many species at one point,” says DBCA’s Ch­eryl Cow­ell. Be­neath the wa­ter­line live 323 fish species ,218 dif­fer­ent bi­valves and 80 co­ral species. Some 230 bird species( more than one-quar­ter of Aus­tralia’s avi­fauna) dart,

f lit and soar above, while 98 rep­tile and frog species ex­ist along­side 37 land mam­mals. Desert plants min­gle with species found in cooler, wet­ter wood­land ar­eas; 53 of Shark Bay’s plant species are en­demic to the re­gion.

Even the bay’s salin­ity is di­verse, with a mix­ture of oceanic, hy­per­saline and slightly less salty meta­ha­line wa­ter. With an av­er­age depth of just 9m, the to­pog­ra­phy of the bay’s sea f loor tends to re­duce mix­ing, and evap­o­ra­tion in­creases the salti­ness. The process is ex­ac­er­bated by the f low-re­strict­ing sea­grass, which forms a fun­da­men­tal part of Shark Bay’s en­vi­ron­ment. “The sea­grass mead­ows are nearly as big as the Perth metropoli­tan area,” Ch­eryl says. “That we have 12 dif­fer­ent species as­sem­bled in one place is unique. They form the ge­ol­ogy and ecol­ogy of Shark Bay it­self. As well as feed­ing our 10,000-plus dugongs, they trap a lot of the sed­i­ment and the car­bon and shells. They also act as a nurs­ery for small fish and shell­fish.”

VIEWED FROM THE air, the bay’s 4000sq.km of sea­grass mead­ows ap­pear as huge, dark patches and long lines against the ivory sand. One of the best ways to ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­tent of th­ese un­der­wa­ter fields is from a light plane on a scenic tour with Shark Bay Avi­a­tion. Soar­ing west­ward from Den­ham, this takes you over the salt-crys­talli­sa­tion ponds at Use­less Loop, which, along with a closed hamlet of em­ploy­ees and their fam­i­lies, has been op­er­at­ing since the 1960s. The patch­work of ponds ref lects the sun as the Cessna traces a raised road con­nect­ing two of the slen­der out­growths of Heiris­son Prong at the end of Edel Land penin­sula, the route cut­ting across the f lat wa­ter like a fence line split­ting pad­docks.

Bank­ing to the south-west, the plane passes the 120m-high Zuyt­dorp Cliffs – named after a Dutch East In­dia Com­pany mer­chant ship that ran aground there in 1712. The 150km-long, steep lime­stone precipice, clawed at by a frothing ocean and il­lu­mi­nated by af­ter­noon sun, rep­re­sents the dra­matic western edge of our sun-baked coun­try. The eroded curves lead even­tu­ally to Steep Point, the main­land’s west­ern­most point, a prized fish­ing spot and key view­point for mi­grat­ing hump­back whales.

WA’s largest isle, Dirk Har­tog Is­land, sits op­po­site. Home to just one fam­ily and ac­ces­si­ble only by sin­gle-ve­hi­cle barge or boat, its prof ile was raised in 2016 dur­ing the 400-year com­mem­o­ra­tions of WA’s dis­cov­ery by off-course Dutch mariners (AG 134). Their visit, al­though f leet­ing, marked the f irst time a Euro­pean had stepped on WA soil and re­sulted in a re­draw­ing of world maps.

As we wing over Cape In­scrip­tion, where Cap­tain Dirk Har­tog left a pewter plate as ev­i­dence of his 1616 visit, the crys­talline wa­ters re­veal grace­ful manta rays and the oc­ca­sional dark lump of a log­ger­head tur­tle. Nearby Tur­tle Bay is one of this threat­ened rep­tile species’ most im­por­tant nest­ing grounds, vis­ited by Aus­tralia’s largest breed­ing colony. Back from the wa­ter­line, huge pink lakes cut cir­cu­lar scars in the land, which is oth­er­wise speck­led like leop­ard skin by low, round trees. Aside from rough, four-wheel-drive-only tracks and nine wild camp­ing grounds, there’s lit­tle here but nature.

THE EDGES of Peron Penin­sula, across the bay, are quite dif­fer­ent. Cop­per-hued cliffs al­ter­nate with pale sand dunes, the for­mer f lecked with sea ea­gles, terns and pied cor­morants. At the penin­sula’s tip, a f lam­ing-red rise over­looks a de­serted beach en­graved with the scat­ter marks of tiny crabs.

Pearl diver turned char­ter boat skip­per Travis Fran­cis reg­u­larly de­posits vis­i­tors here. For 24 years, his fam­ily has run Shark Bay Fish­ing and Eco Tours, a busi­ness they con­tin­ued after clos­ing their pearl farm. “We see whale sharks in th­ese wa­ters, and get loads of whales in the bay,” he says. “We also get pink snap­per, red em­peror, co­ral trout, blue bone. They’re what the f ish­er­men chase.” One of f ive broth­ers raised lo­cally, Travis ad­mits no­body in his fam­ily eats fish – but they al­ways know where they’re bit­ing.

Hug­ging the penin­sula’s coast, he nav­i­gates his boat past a rau­cous seabird colony and through the zig-zag en­trance to Big La­goon, an in­un­dated gyp­sum clay­pan in­side Fran­cois Peron National Park. It’s one of Shark Bay’s most ar­rest­ing sights. Lo­cal Ya­matji-Mal­gana man Dar­ren ‘Capes’ Capewell can of­ten be found here, lead­ing walks and kayak trips as part of his Wula Gura Nyinda guid­ing busi­ness. The tours, he says, are “about im­mers­ing your­self and feel­ing the en­ergy – that con­nec­tion to place”. In­dige­nous con­nec­tions here date back at least 30,000 years: stone tools, wa­ter-car­ry­ing ves­sels, shell mid­dens and f ish traps have all been found on Peron Penin­sula.

Dozens of ex­tra camp­sites and new view-catch­ing raised tent decks were added to Big La­goon’s perime­ter in 2016 to keep pace with de­mand from 4WD en­thu­si­asts and campers. From the la­goon, it’s a short sandy drive to Peron Homestead, a 1900s sheep sta­tion turned self-ex­ploratory her­itage precinct, where vis­i­tors learn that the sta­tion’s shear­ing shed was moved out of Den­ham after los­ing too many shear­ers to the town pub.

FORA PLACE named after its sharks, it seems sur­pris­ing there have been no recorded shark bite fa­tal­i­ties and only one known at­tack. An im­pres­sive 29 dif­fer­ent species of shark have been recorded in the bay; how­ever, most vis­i­tors only en­counter the elu­sive crea­tures when they visit Ocean Park Aquar­ium, which con­ducts daily shark-feed­ing dis­plays and is lo­cated just out­side Den­ham.

Boast­ing a $1.2 mil­lion so­lar panel in­stal­la­tion and, ac­cord­ing to lo­cals, the best cof­fee around, the aquar­ium is filled with open tanks and glass-fronted dis­plays where in­jured lo­cal sea crea­tures are re­ha­bil­i­tated. The park is manned by ma­rine sci­en­tists, who reg­u­larly take in res­cued tur­tles, sea snakes and stingrays.

The an­i­mals spend time in pro­gres­sively larger tanks prior to their re­lease back into the bay. “All the an­i­mals we keep are lo­cals, so there are no translo­ca­tion is­sues. We just re­lease them from the beach a few me­tres away,” says aquar­ium man­ager Ed Fenny, who started work­ing here as a 21-year-old.

The res­i­dent sharks are caught hu­manely and kept for a few months in a large pool where PADI scuba div­ing cour­ses for the ad­ven­tur­ous are held. “We use a bar­b­less hook, tow them back to shore by hand at walk­ing pace, slide them onto a stretcher and re­lease them into our pond,” Ed ex­plains.

His pur­suit is ed­u­ca­tion, rather than a theme-park ex­pe­ri­ence, and he hopes his ef­forts to im­part knowl­edge, par­tic­u­larly to an­glers, will lead to bet­ter out­comes for the re­gion’s ma­rine life. “Only 30–40 per cent of catch-and-re­lease fish are es­ti­mated to sur­vive,” he says. “Most game fish­ers are pretty shocked to hear that. If we can get that across and im­prove their han­dling tech­niques then we’ve had a win.”

De­spite Shark Bay’s fish-filled wa­ters and ex­tra­or­di­nary wilder­ness, its main draw­card is a more re­cent in­no­va­tion. Ever since a fish­er­man’s wife be­gan feed­ing the bay’s dol­phins in the 1960s, peo­ple have been drawn to the grassy hol­i­day vil­lage at Monkey Mia to see them. Each morn­ing up to 26 Indo-Pa­cific bot­tlenose dol­phins bob along the shore, parad­ing for a large au­di­ence ea­gerly lined up with their toes in the shal­lows.

At three des­ig­nated feed­ing times, se­lected vol­un­teers get to throw the res­i­dent cetaceans a few fish as DBCA rangers share their story, tread­ing a f ine line be­tween tourist at­trac­tion and ed­u­ca­tional demon­stra­tion. “Peo­ple come from all over the world,” says Mary Bar­rett Gelu, who vis­ited a decade ago, never left and is now a ranger. “Peo­ple come think­ing they can touch or ride the dol­phins. We have to let them know there are strict guide­lines in place.” (See page 64 for more on the dol­phins.)

Cer­tainly, the dol­phins are what draw many vis­i­tors to Shark Bay. But, as so many of those in­spired to take the turn off High­way One for the hour-long jour­ney to the western tip of WA go on to find out, there’s so much more to dis­cover here. At its heart is the raw wilder­ness and sub­lime colours that linger in the mem­ory, long after the re­turn home.

It seems sur­pris­ing there have been no recorded shark bite fa­tal­i­ties and only one known at­tack.

There are at least 230 bird species in Shark Bay’s World Her­itage sur­rounds. Emus are of­ten seen cross­ing the roads and those at Monkey Mia are par­tic­u­larly fond of help­ing them­selves to tourists’ lunches.

DBCA of­fi­cer Roger Whitelaw with a hand­ful of Shark Bay cock­les at Shell Beach, where the tiny shells are packed 10m deep.

Shark Bay’s stro­ma­to­lites are seen as sign­posts to the be­gin­ning of life on Earth, sim­i­lar to or­gan­isms that be­gan re­leas­ing oxy­gen 3.5 bil­lion years ago.

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