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.