Shark Bay has become one of Western Australia's most popular travel destinations, but there are no resorts or man-made attractions here. That's because Shark Bay is all about coming face to face with nature and encountering flora and fauna in an unspoilt natural wilderness environment.
Shark Bay is a World Heritage Area that covers more than 2.2 million hectares and has a coastline more than 1,500 km long. The westernmost part of Australia, it features landscapes and seascapes both colourful and diverse, from red and white sands and turquoise lagoons to plunging cliffs and soaring dunes.
Shark Bay, thus named by British navigator William Dampier in August 1688, is Western Australia's first world heritage listed area and one of only 16 Australia wide that fit all four selection criteria. Located on the west coast of Australia between the towns of Geraldton and Carnarvon, Shark Bay is Australia's largest marine embayment, with more than 1,500 kilometres of meandering coastline.
A vast shallow bay of about 13,000 square kilometres, the bay is broken into a series of gulfs, inlets and basins by dune ridges and seagrass banks. Red wind blown sand dunes, soaring limestone cliffs, birridas and white beaches are features of Shark Bay's ancient and varied landscape.
Turtles, whales, prawns, scallops, sea snakes, fish and sharks are common. Communities of corals, sponges and other invertebrates, together with a unique mix of tropical and temperate fish species, have also formed in some areas. The wide intertidal flats on the shores of Shark Bay support a unique community of burrowing molluscs, hermit crabs and other invertebrates. But the very foundation of Shark Bay's ecosystem is the seagrass - meadows and meadows of it.
Dugongs (above) and marine turtles are frequently seen in the bay. In Australian waters, herbivorous green turtles are more numerous than other marine turtles, which are carnivores. Individual turtles are common in Shark Bay all year round and congregations of turtles can be seen from the end of July, although the start of the breeding season is usually later. Traditionally, turtles and dugongs formed an important part of the diet of Aboriginal people but in Shark Bay these animals are not subject to as much hunting pressure as in other parts of the world.
Dirk Hartog Island: Though an isolated location, Dirk Hartog Island holds great significance in Australia's history as it became the most visited location on the Australian coastline prior to European settlement in 1788. It could be aegued that Dirk Hartog Island is where Australia's recorded history began.
It was here that two Dutchmen left pewter plates recording their visits in 1616 (Dirk Hartog) and 1696 (William Vlamingh) respectively; two French explorers fell out in 1801 over the ethics of removing the plates and taking them back to France; and 29 years earlier another Frenchman had come ashore here and claimed the place for France, leaving a bottle recording the event. It was to remain buried in the sand of Turtle Bay until 1988 when it was recovered by an expedition of the WA Maritime Museum.
Denham Sound: Flanked by Dirk Hartog Island to the west and Peron Peninsula to the east, Denham Sound is named after Captain Henry Mangles Denham, a Royal Navy Hydrographer who surveyed a portion of Shark Bay in the HMS Herald in 1858. The town of Denham was gazetted in 1898, and at that time was locally known as "Freshwater Camp". The site chosen for this townsite was the only location in Shark Bay providing a good supply of fresh water.
The local population at that time was principally engaged in pearling, and many opposed declaring a townsite, because the process used to obtain the pearls and pearl shell would force them to move away from the townsite where health laws would now apply.
Peron Peninsula: Named after Francois Peron, the French zoologist who accompanied the Nicolas Baudin scientific expedition to Australia in 1801, Peron Peninsula is one of two peninsulas on Shark Bay. The peninsula's most famous attractions are Denham, Australia's most westerly town, the dolphins of Monkey Mia and Francois Peron National Park. The park covers some 52,500 hectares at the northern extreme of the Peron Peninsula, and is adjacent to the Shark Bay Marine Park. The drive to the end of the peninsula is a 4WD track only, but the vivid colours of the stunning coastal scenery is well worth the effort.
Hamelin Pool: One of only six places in the world with living marine Stromatolites, or "living fossils", Hamelin Pool also has the distinction of being Western Australia's only marine nature reserve. The Stromatolites look like bubble-blowing rocky lumps strewn around the beach but are actually built by living organisms too small for the human eye to see. Stromatolites are able to survive in the area because Hamelin Pool's water is twice as saline as normal sea water and seagrasses and many other forms of life cannot survive there.
L'Haridon Bight: A body of highly saline water to the east of the southern section of Peron Peninsula. Taillefer Isthmus, on its southern shore, joins Peron Peninsula to the mainland. Shell Beach is a fifty metre wide ribbon around the bight's waters edge comprised of a deposit of billions of tiny coquina bivalve shells. Due to the shape of the bight and the high salinity of the water, a large population of cockles flourish and when they die the next storm brings another layer of shells to the beach. In some places, the shells are five metres deep.
Holocene fossil shell deposits are found on Point Petit, the narrow peninsula between Hamelin Pool and L'Haridon Bight, and are presently being mined. Lharidon Bight was named by French explorer Nicolas Baudin during his visit to the Shark Bay area in July 1801. The name honours Dr. Francois-Etienne Lharidon de Cremenec, one of two surgeons on the expedition vessel Geographe.
Edel Land: The name is today applied to the western peninsula of Shark Bay, which ends to the immediate south of Dirk Hartog Island at Steep Point (the Australian mainland's most westerly point). The Zuytdorp Cliffs form the southern part of Edel Land's coastline. The name was originally given to the whole west coast of Australia by Captain Frederick de Houtman of the Dutch VOC ship D'Ordrecht, and Jacob d'Edel, Councillor of the Indies, in the VOC ship Amsterdam, who navigated these shores in July 1619.
Making a landfall somewhere south of the mouth of the Swan River, De Houtman sailed north, keeping the coast in sight before coming across small islands surrounded by coral reefs. He marked his charts with the Portuguese phrase "Abri Voll Olos", which means "look out", and named the mainland "d'Edels Land".
Shelter Bay offers idyllic beach camping and views across South Passage to Dirk Hartog Island. The most popular time to camp at Shelter Bay is from April to October when winds are lighter and the sea calmer.
Monkey Mia: In the 1960s, fishermen began feeding bottlenose dolphins, which in time began appearing regularly when they returned with their catch. Over the years, the association continued. News of the phenomenon travelled by word of mouth and visitors now come from far and wide to see the dolphins. These dolphins are wild animals that come to the beach of their own free will to interact with people and accept fish from them.
Seven or eight dolphins are now regular visitors and the habit has been passed from mother to young, so that the beach visitors now span three generations. They belong to a much larger local group that lives further out in the Bay.
Useless Loop: Located on the peninsula immediately to the north of Marigui Promontory is Useless Loop on Useless Inlet. A solar salt operation and gypsum mine have been here operating since 1968. The salt (sodium chloride-table salt) is produced when ponds are repeatedly flooded with seawater, which is progressively concentrated by evaporation and scooped up when dry. Overseas ships call regularly to collect the product which in fact is the purest grade sea salt in the world.
Useless Inlet was named on 10th August 1801 by a French expedition headed by Nicolas Baudin. It was marked on Freycinet's maps as 'Havre Inutile' (Useless Bay), a reference to the fact that the expedition's scientists found nothing of interest at the locality.
Steep Point: The most westerly point on the Australian mainland, Steel Point is accessed from Useless Loop Road. Steep Point is renown for great fishing, terrific scenery and bays and is an excellent spot for four-wheel driving, fishing, photography and bush camping. Steep Point is part of Carrarang Pastoral Station and permission is required to enter the pastoral lease area.
HMAS Sydney (II) off Princes Pier, Melbourne, 1936
HMAS Sydney was sunk to the west of Steep Point on 19 November 1941 after a battle with the disguised German raider Kormoran. On 24 November, after a number of unsuccessful attempts to contact the ship, a wide sea and air search was organised. Other than two lifebelts and a Carley float, no trace of the Sydney was found. Two days later, survivors of the Kormoran provided the first definite account of the Sydney's fate. Further interrogation of the raider's crew enabled Australian authorities to piece together the details of the battle.
With many rumours circulating, the Prime Minister confirmed on 1 December that the Sydney had been lost. Sydney was located off the coast of Western Australia to the west of Steep point, on 17 March 2008 just after 11:00, only hours after Kormoran's discovery was made public. The main memorial for the loss of Sydney is located at Geraldton, Western Australia, on top of Mount Scott. A mrmorial cairn was erected on Quobba Station in November 1981 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the battle.
Zuytdorp Cliffs: The Zuytdorp Cliffs extend for about 150 km along a rugged, spectacular and little visited segment of the Western Australian Indian Ocean coast in Shark Bay. The cliffs extend from just north of the mouth of the Murchison River at Kalbarri, to Pepper Point south of Steep Point. The cliffs are situated in both the Gascoyne and Mid West regions of the state.
The cliffs are named after an 18th century trading ship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the Zuytdorp, that was wrecked against the cliffs in 1712. Carrying goods and passenghers from The Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the Zuytdorp never arrived at its destination. No search was undertaken, presumably because the VOC had no idea whether and where the ship had been wrecked or taken by pirates and possibly due to prior expensive but fruitless attempts to search for other missing ships, even when an approximate wreck location was known. During estern Australia's early colonial days, white visitors to the area are said to have seen aborigines with blonde hair and blue eyes, but their connection to the Zuytdorp survivors has never been substantiated. The wrecksite was discovered in 1954 and the wreck first dived on a decade later.
Tamala and Carrarang Stations: These pastoral stations in the southern part of the Shark Bay World Heritage Area form part of the limestone dominated landscape between Steep Point and Kalbarri. The main attraction of these properties is the low lying eastern coastline and adjacent waters of Henri Freycinet Harbour. Visitor access to these properties is limited and takes a back seat to the running of the pastoral businesses. Many tourists only cross these properties on their way to Steep Point however small numbers of people spend time here camping, fishing and exploring the prongs and peninsulas.
Wooramel Coast: This low lying coastline, home to Shark Bay's most extensive mangrove community is also a popular spot for people making day trips for fishing or camping overnight on long journeys north or south. This strip of coastline runs parallel to the North West Coastal Highway and short unsealed access roads head from the highway to each of the tourist sites. Bush Bay and New Beach are all within 40km of Carnarvon and further south is Gladstone, around 110km further on. The old Gladstone port and townsite has an interesting history dating back to the early 1900's. It was an important site for many years before roads connected the area, and boats alighting at the jetty would cart wool and sandalwood to ports further south. The remains of the jetty and some small ruins can still be seen today.