Nowhere on Australia’s coastline is there a more vivid reminder that our nation’s rugged outback is never far away than at Shark Bay in Western Australia.
The ocean and the outback come together at Shark Bay, with the vivid red sand melting into the turquoise blue waters of the sea.
It was here, at the most westerly point on the Australian mainland, that Shark Bay’s early European history commenced some 150 years before Captain Cook sailed into Botany Bay. On October 25 1616, Dirk Hartog, captain of the Dutch trading ship Den Eendraght, sailed past what are now known as the Zuytdorp Cliffs and became the first known European to set foot on Australian soil. He nailed a pewter dish to record his visit at Cape Inscription on Dirk Hartog Island and continued on his way.
The name Shark Bay, however, came from explorer William Dampier who called it ‘the bay of sharks’ because of the large number of sharks seen in the area.
With a permanent population of around 1200 people, which multiplies several-fold during the winter months, Denham, right on the water’s edge, is the only town in Shark Bay and is located 835km north of Perth.
The Shark Bay area, which has more coastline than the whole of New South Wales, is remote but is no longer isolated. A sealed road leads off the North West Coastal Highway directly to the heart of the Shark Bay region – now a World Heritage Area – which offers a large array of unexpected attractions.
The number one attraction in Shark Bay is the world-famous dolphins at Monkey Mia. There are still plenty of sharks to be found in the bay, but it is the bottlenosed dolphins that have really captured attention. The history of hand-feeding the bottlenosed dolphins at Monkey Mia, 25km north-east of Denham, goes back to the early 1960s when fishermen and later a lady from the local caravan park began to feed them whenever they came near their boats or close to the shore. Today, the Monkey Mia dolphins are big business, attracting tens of thousands of visitors every year.
In earlier years, when little was known about dolphins’ health and habits, tourists could buy a bucket of fish to
feed them. But now a strict feeding program is in place and is monitored
by national park staff. To ensure they retain their natural hunting skills, each dolphin is fed only a small, strictly measured quantity of fish each day (up to 2kg), encouraging them to seek their main food supply out at sea. Visitors are picked out of the crowd and handed a fish to feed the dolphins by national park rangers. Sometimes, up to several hundred people stand and jostle for a place on the shore to enjoy the dolphin experience.
But when dolphin feed time is over, and you have inspected the splendid Dolphin Information/Interpretive Centre, what else does Shark Bay have to offer?
As many visitors are now finding, there is much more to this area than expected. They come to see the dolphins and they find that these loveable creatures are only a small part of what Shark Bay has to offer.
At Hamelin Pool, near the southern end of the bay, visitors can see some excellent examples of the oldest life forms on earth – stromatolites. It is believed these rock-like, single-celled formations first formed about 3500 million years ago and were the origins of all life on earth. The Hamelin Pool stromatolites are only a couple of thousand years old and are still growing slowly at a rate of about 5cm every 100 years. They resemble a toadstool with a cauliflower shape about them and are an unusual sight. A boardwalk has been erected from the beach, enabling visitors to walk out into the bay for a close-up look at these unique formations growing in the warm, shallow and very salty waters. Hamelin Pool’s stromatolites are internationally-renowned as the best examples on earth of living marine stromatolites.
Nearby Shell Beach is comprised of billions of tiny white (bivalve) shells that thrive in the highly saline waters of the bay. The tiny shells (cardiid cockles) seen here and for many miles around the bay are up to 10m deep. As they compact and, with the help of rainwater, solidify under their own weight, they are quarried and cut into shapes to create a unique form of building blocks. There are a number of shell block buildings made from these compressed shells, including the popular and architecturally unique old Pearler Restaurant right on the waterfront in Denham. In the past, shells were also used as road base and as a ground base in local caravan parks, including the Monkey Mia Resort.
An interesting shell block quarry, open for inspection, can be found at Hamelin Pool near the stromatolite viewing area.
At Steep Point, the western-most extremity of Shark Bay (renowned for its great fishing), the spectacular 100m-plus Zuytdorp Cliffs and blowholes are becoming increasingly popular with visitors. The cliffs were named after the Dutch ship Zuytdorp, which came to grief in 1712 and sank 161km south of Denham.
Visitors are in a harsh, remote environment out here and must be fully self-sufficient with food, water and other supplies. The 4WD tracks are rough and sandy and extreme care must be taken to avoid damage.
North of Denham is the Peron Peninsula where huge rolling red sand dunes come to a halt as they dramatically meet white beach sands and the clear blue waters of the bay. They combine to form a spectacular and memorable sight.
Cape Peron is definitely 4WD country, with winding sand tracks leading to some delightful bays and headlands. At the tip of the cape, there is a lovely boardwalk trail around the clifftop near the Peron lighthouse. From this splendid vantage point, there are magnificent views over the turquoise blue waters of the bay. A close look from these high sand dune cliffs often reveals some of the area’s estimated 10,000 docile dugongs playing around and feeding in the waters below. Large manta rays, green and loggerhead turtles, dolphins, basking whales and, of course, several varieties of sharks are also seen from vantage points around the top of the cape.
The whole of the Peron Peninsula also offers many really great campsites right on the edge of the water, with some of the best being at Big Lagoon, Gregories and Bottle Bay, which are all among the nicest camping spots you will find anywhere. Fishing right along this remote coastline (from the beach, rocks or in small boats) is almost always rewarding and a good feed of fresh oysters off the rocks in many locations is there for the eating. At the main campsites, there are toilets and gas barbeques provided but otherwise visitors must be totally self-sufficient with water, food and supplies.
Access to the François Peron National Park is off the Monkey Mia Road about 4km north of Denham. This old sheep property has a splendid visitor centre and a series of walk trails and signposts giving an informative insight into life in this remote corner of Australia many years ago. As well as taking in the historic aspects of the property, visitors can enjoy the homestead’s famous ‘hot tub’ where hot artesian water is piped into a specially-built hot water bath.
There are toilets, showers and change rooms adjacent to the pool. National Park entry and camping fees apply. Access to the Homestead Visitor Centre is suitable for conventional vehicles, but travel to the park’s many other attractions is strictly 4WD only. Tyre gauge/compressor facilities are located at the entry to the park’s northern section to enable tyres to be set to offroad/sand conditions.
A visit to Dirk Hartog Island is also an increasingly popular tour option here at Shark Bay. The site of Dirk Hartog’s landing almost 400 years ago is included in the island’s 4WD adventure, as is the lighthouse and the old keeper’s quarters. There are fishing and sightseeing tours of the island, as well as station stay accommodation and some camping.
There are 26 endangered mammals, as well as a number of rare reptiles and birds, in Shark Bay. While this is quite harsh countryside there are also, quite amazingly, some 700 species of flowering plants which, in spring, provide a wonderful splash of colour as a backdrop to Shark Bay’s many other appealing features. Another worthwhile experience is a visit to a local pearl farm where visitors are taken through the process by which cultured pearls are produced.
A relatively new addition to Shark Bay is the Ocean Park Aquarium (8km south of Denham) where you can see much of the bay’s marine life close up. They also provide refreshments in a modern, licensed café overlooking the water and in addition provide local 4WD and snorkelling tours.
Right on the Denham foreshore the most impressive Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery and Visitor Information Centre has recently been established, where you can totally immerse yourself in both the natural, as well as man-made, history of this diverse and beautiful World Heritage area.
After enjoying the delightful dolphins on your next visit, why not look around and experience the huge variety of other splendid attractions that WA’s outback coast has to offer?
· It is estimated there are around 600 dolphins residing in the waters of Shark Bay.
· The Aboriginal name for Shark Bay is Gathaagudu, meaning ‘two waters’.
· Denham, the main centre in Shark Bay, has many facilities including a nine-hole golf course, bowling club, post office, bank agencies, museum, fish-freezing facilities, restaurants, shops, two hotels, charter boats, caravan parks and a variety of other accommodation. Denham is 835km north of Perth. Monkey Mia is a further 25km away.
· Tour operators offer dugong, dolphin and turtle spotting adventures aboard large sailing boats in the bay off Monkey Mia. Bookings can be made at the Shark Bay Tourist Information Centre at Denham or on location at Monkey Mia.
· Recreational fishing, particularly for some of the many highly prized tropical species (spangled emperor, coral trout, snapper, etc.) is extremely popular in Shark Bay.
· DEC office, Denham: (08) 9948 1208; Monkey Mia: (08) 9948 1366.
· Best time to visit Shark Bay is from May to November.
· Dirk Hartog Homestead: (08) 9948 1211, www.dhi.com.au.
· Ocean Park Aquarium and 4WD Tours: (08) 9948 1765.
· Additional information, contact Shark Bay Visitor Information Centre: (08)9948.1590, www.sharkbayvisit.com.
Originally published in Caravan World #510, January 2010.