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Shark Bay, WA

Large bay famed for its dolphin experience at Monkey Mia

Shark Bay is an exceptional destination. A jewel on the West Australian coast with white sand beaches edged by aquamarine waters and dark blue waters stretching to the horizon. It is also a hugely important historic site which encompasses the drama of the early Dutch exploration of the Australian coastline; the arrival of William Dampier with his questionable assessments of the coastline and the local people;  the romance of pearl fishing; and the harshness of country where rainfall is minimal and unreliable. It is an area of beautiful beaches, excellent fishing (both deep sea and shoreline), of bushwalking and of one of the country's most famous tourist attractions - the dolphins of Monkey Mia.

Location

Denham, on Shark Bay, is located 822 km north of Perth via Highway 1.

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Origin of Name

Shark Bay was named by William Dampier on his second voyage to Australia in 1699. Dampier wrote in A Voyage to New Holland: ‘The Sea–fish that we saw here (for here was no River, Land or Pond of fresh Water to be seen) are chiefly Sharks. There are Abundance of them in this particular Sound, and I therefore give it the Name of Shark’s Bay ... ’Twas the 7th of August when we came into Shark’s Bay; in which we Anchor’d at three several Places, and stay’d at the first of them (on the W. side of the Bay) till the 11th. During which time we searched about, as I said, for fresh Water, digging Wells, but to no purpose.’

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Things to See and Do

Attractions in the Area
Shark Bay is a tourist magnet. Obviously the prime attraction is the dolphin feeding at Monkey Mia, but there is also the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool, a trip across to Dirk Hartog Island, the dugongs at Eagle Bluff, and the impossibly beautiful Shell Beach, which is made up entirely of shells. To experience all the attractions it is necessary to spend at least a couple of days in the area.

Monkey Mia - pronounced Monkey My-a
The main attraction at Shark Bay is the feeding of the dolphins of Monkey Mia. Monkey Mia is located 25 km north east of Denham. According to the Explore Parks WA website (https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/monkey-mia) "Times for the dolphin experiences depend on if and when the dolphins visit the beach. While they are only offered fish during their first three visits between 7:45 am and 12 noon, they often visit the beach outside these times. Parks and Wildlife Service staff hand out a limited number of fish to people standing in the shallows, which are then offered to the dolphins. This ensures that the dolphins continue to forage for a large proportion of their food."
The story of how and why the dolphins come to the beach to be fed is genuinely fascinating. In the early 1960s a woman named Mimm Watts started feeding the dolphins which followed her husband’s fishing boat to a campsite on the shoreline. Over the years they followed the boat and a pattern of feeding the dolphins, and the dolphins becoming very friendly, emerged. There are an estimated 3,000 dolphins in Shark Bay but it seems that only two families avail themselves of the free fish available from the Park Rangers.

Some important information about the dolphins:

(i) it is totally arbitrary as to when the dolphins come in to visit the visitors. It is more likely for them to visit during the morning but they have been known not to come in at all and to only pay one afternoon visit. The Rangers advise that people wanting to see the dolphins should be prepared to spend 24 hours at Monkey Mia.

(ii) The Rangers feed the dolphins a small amount of fish but they do not feed the dolphins at the same time each day. Therefore there is no pattern to the feeding. The dolphins will come in and not be fed. At other times they will be fed.

(iii) in November there is the mating season and the dolphins become more erratic in their visits to the shore during this time. There tend to be fewer dolphins at mating season than at other times.

(iii) the number of people passing through topped 1000 in one day during the autumn school holidays. This doesn’t mean that there were 1000 people on the beach. It means that there were 1000 people at Monkey Mia during the course of one day. The crowds on the beach probably did not exceed 400 at any one time.

(iv) To find out details about the movements of the dolphins it is worthwhile liking the Monkey Mia Dolphin Experience Facebook page. Check out https://www.facebook.com/monkeymiadolphinexperience/?fref=ts.

(v) The notion, which some people have, that the dolphins are just waiting for their attentions is not accurate. The beach near the caravan park where the dolphins regularly appear is controlled and patrolled by shire rangers. Brochures and signs give clear instructions on what to do.

Other Attractions at Monkey Mia
Walking Along the Beach
The simplest pleasure is to simply walk along the beach. Shark Bay is home to dugongs, sharks, sting rays, turtles and fish all of which can sometimes be seen from the beach.

Wulyibidi Yaninyina trail
The indigenous Wulyibidi Yaninyina trail is a 1.5 km loop walk across the sand dunes and along the beach. The Parks and Wildlife Service argue that, if you want to see the birds in the area, "they are most active just after sunrise or late in the afternoon.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery & Visitors Centre
Located at 53 Knight Terrace, Denham the Discovery Centre is an ideal starting place if you want to learn about the importance and history of Shark Bay. Through a variety of exhibits - historical footage, soundscapes, interactive exhibits, rare and historic objects - it explains the importance of the stromatolites, Shell Beach, the dugongs and the sea grass beds.

Buildings in Denham
St Andrews Anglican Church
Located at 35 Hughes Street, St Andrews Anglican Church is particularly impressive as it is built out of coquina shell blocks. There is a detailed description of the church and its history at http://inherit.stateheritage.wa.gov.au/Public/Inventory/Details/a95d8025-bd7c-4b85-a4f6-48dfaed28b37. It records that "Funding for this church was provided from the 'League of Help", a group based in England dedicated to erecting churches overseas, following the bombing of St. Andrew's-by-the Wardrobe Church in London during World War II. A simple design was drawn up by Perth architects Hawkins and Sands and construction commenced on 24 February, 1954. The shell blocks were quarried from the beach at Hamelin, many of them being sawn by the then Rector of Carnarvon, the Rev. Ron Hobby. The supervision of the construction was carried out by Mr. R.J. Davies of Perth, with two Italian stone masons and an Estonian carpenter. The building was opened and consecrated on 6 June, 1954 by Bishop Frewer. The stained glass window depicting the cross of St. Andrew and the pews came from St. Andrew's Church, Subiaco" and that "The windows are small, gothic arched with leadlights. Bottles are also incorporated into the walls as an additional feature."

Old Pearlers Restaurant
Located at 71 Knight Terrace, Denham, the Old Pearler Restaurant claims that it is the only restaurant in the world built entirely of tiny coquina shells. The restaurant was reputedly built by an Englishman who in 1974 took more than three years cutting the shell blocks at a local quarry site and subsequently constructing the building. The blocks are formed when tiny cockle shells (Fragum erugatum) compact and cement themselves.

Hamelin Pool and the Stromatolites
Located 100 km south east of Denham and 35 km from Highway 1, Hamelin Pool offers visitors a rare opportunity (there are only two places on the planet) to inspect stromatolites. Why are they so important? They are literally living fossils. We know, from fossils found in the Pilbara, that stromatolites (they really are nothing more than a community of microbes and they look more like rocks) are the oldest living things on the planet. Their very distant relatives were forming rock-like lumps on the edge of watery lakes some 3.5 billion years old.
There is a boardwalk, the Boolagoorda Walk, out to the stromatolites. At first you will feel that you are looking at rather unusual rocks. You wander out on the boardwalk and all around, at the tidal edge and just covered by the waters of the bay, are rather ugly, dome-like and stone-like, grey stromatolites. It is hard to love them.
Hamelin Pool is a part of Shark Bay which is characterised by hypersalination - twice the salination of normal seawater - and the stromatolites have formed on the water’s edge. These unusual formations are created by single celled organisms known as cyanbacteria and they grow at a rate of less than 1 mm per year. They are known as ‘living fossils’ because these cyanbacteria formations are probably as old as any form of life on earth. The cyanrbacteria (blue-green bacteria) traps and binds sediments. Some build craggy towers. Others build flat spongy mats.
Hamelin Pool is actually a landlocked marine basin partially separated from Shark Bay by the Faure Sill. This has helped to produce the hypersalination which in turn has ensured that the cyanbacteria has remained isolated from aquatic creatures which would feed on them if the water was a little more agreeable. They were discovered by scientists as recently as 1954 and have existed at the site for at least the past 5,000 years.

Useless Loop
It is a comment on the distances in the area that Useless Loop, which lies 25 km south-west of Denham, can be seen from the town. But, if you were to drive there, it is 250 km by road. It is not open to the public but 4WD vehicles can get a closer view of its vast salt pans and salt mines. It is reputedly the purest salt in the world and is currently being mined by the Mitsui Group from Japan. It can be viewed by people flying from Denham to Dirk Hartog Island. Amusingly it was named in 1801 by a French explorer, Louis-Henri de Saulces de Freycinet (he was the brother of the more famous Louis de Freycinet) who called the place Havre Inutile — Useless Harbour — because he believed that entrance to the harbour was blocked by a large sandbar.

Francois Peron National Park
Located 4 km to the north of Denham and stretching north along the shore of Shark Bay, the Francois Peron National Park covers 52,500 hectares which includes dramatic coastal scenery with red cliffs, sand plains, white beaches and arid desert scrub. It was originally a pastoral station and the Peron Heritage Precinct is accessible by two wheel drive and comprises an interpretative centre, a trail and a hot tub where visitors can relax in the artesian waters of the area. The Explore Parks WA website (https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/site/peron-homestead-precinct) explains  "The old overseers quarters in the Peron Heritage Precinct has been converted into a display for visitors. A large wall mural at the visitor centre is a stimulus to consider the perspectives of local Indigenous people, French maritime explorers, early pastoralists and fishers through to the conservation managers of today ... The homestead artesian bore was drilled in 1922-1923 and the water was pumped by three windmills to nine watering points for livestock. Today, visitors can enjoy a dip in the hot water, and view emus and other birds that flock to drink in the overflow from the 'hot tub'." There is also a campground at Turquoise Lagoon and information and a picnic ground at Cape Peron which can only be accessed by 4WD. For more information check out https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/francois-peron.

Eagle Bluff
Located 22 km south of Denham is Eagle Bluff which offers a particularly impressive lookout over Denham Sound where a substantial population of dugongs live in the seagrass meadows. This is also a home for dolphins and sharks as well as osprey and sea eagles. Check out https://www.australiascoralcoast.com/destination/denham/eagle-bluff for more details.

Shell Beach
Located 45 km south of Denham, Shell Beach is one of the wonders of the world.. The entire beach is made up of millions upon millions of tiny coquina shells and, at low tide, it is possible to walk a hundred metres into the bay all the time treading on a seemingly endless surface of shells. The tiny white shells are, apparently, 10 metres deep and stretch for over 70 km.
When he first arrived in Shark Bay William Dampier noted the unique shells of the area. On 7 August 1699 he wrote: "The shore was lined thick with many other sorts of very strange and beautiful Shells, for variety of Colour and Shape, most finely spotted with Red, Black, or Yellow, &c. such as I have not seen any where but at this place. I brought away a great many of them; but lost all, except a very few, and those not the best."

Dirk Hartog Island
Dirk Hartog Island is 80 km long, 14 km wide at the widest point, and covers an area of 63,000 hectares. It is now a combination of eco-tourism destination and National Park. Today the island is run by Kieran Wardle and his wife Tory. Apart from offering trips to Cape Inscription where Dirk Hartog first stepped onto Australian soil (it is a day trip over narrow sandy tracks) they offer a range of eco-friendly accommodation options and a variety of trips, fishing options and walking around the island.
The island is barren, isolated, pummelled by the huge and unpredictable waves of the Indian Ocean. Physically the island has unusual geological formations ranging from 15 metre high sand dunes to rocky cliffs and fossilised remnants of ancient coral reefs. It is home to a number of endangered species including the rare black and white wren; each summer loggerhead turtles nest on the north end of the island (it is the largest loggerhead turtle breeding colony in Australia); and it is home to the sandhill frog which is only found in Shark Bay. Just near the Eco Lodge  is an island bird sanctuary inhabited by terns, cormorants, osprey and seagulls where you can watch as huge white breasted sea eagles go about their dangerously predatory business of stealing chicks.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans Shark Bay was the traditional country of three Aboriginal language groups: the Malgana, Nhanda and Yingkarta.

* Shark Bay was first named by William Dampier on his second voyage to Australia in 1699. Dampier wrote in A Voyage to New Holland: ‘The Sea–fish that we saw here (for here was no River, Land or Pond of fresh Water to be seen) are chiefly Sharks. There are Abundance of them in this particular Sound, and I therefore give it the Name of Shark’s Bay ... ’Twas the 7th of August when we came into Shark’s Bay; in which we Anchor’d at three several Places, and stay’d at the first of them (on the W. side of the Bay) till the 11th. During which time we searched about, as I said, for fresh Water, digging Wells, but to no purpose.’

* In 1610 the Dutch sailor Henderik Brouwer discovered a fast route from the Cape of Good Hope to Batavia via the Roaring Forties. The idea was head east for a few thousand kilometres then turn left.

* The route became popular and in 1616 Dirk Hartog followed the route, sailed too far, and landed at Cape Inscription on Dirk Hartog Island on 26 October 1616.

* In 1697 the Dutch sailor Willem de Vlamingh reached Shark Bay.

* In 1699 William Dampier surveyed the coast and named Shark Bay.

* In 1772 Alesne de St Allouren landed on Dirk Hartog Island, and claimed the western half of New Holland for the French king.

* In 1818 the French explorer Louis de Freycinet reached the area.

*  In 1821-22 the explorer Phillip Parker King carried out an historic survey of the Australian coastline.

* In 1821 the explorer John Septimus Roe explored the area.

* By 1850 the area was being exploited by guano miners.

* Pearling in the area began in the 1850s.

* In 1858 Henry Mangles Denham surveyed the area and produced charts of the waters.

* Pastoral leases were granted in the area in the 1860s.

* The first pastoral lease was granted on Dirk Hartog Island in 1869.

* By 1873 over 80 pearling luggers were working in Shark Bay.

* In 1884 a telegraph station was built at Hamelin Pool.

* The area was gazetted in 1890.

* Sandalwood was being exported by the 1890s.

* The Pearling Industry collapsed in the 1920s.

* In the early 1960s a woman named Mrs Watts started feeding the wild dolphins thus creating the Monkey Mia tourist attraction.

* By the 1960s there were 142,000 sheep in Shark Bay.

* By 1962 prawns were being fished in the area.

* A serious drought hit the area in the 1970s.

* By the late 1970s saucer scallops were being fished and exported to Asia.

* In 1982 the Monkey Mia Dolphin Research Centre was started.

* Research into the dolphins started in 1984.

* In 1985 an information centre was established.

* In 1988 the Western Australian government allocated money for roads and infrastructure.

* By 1990 Shark Bay had been declared a Marine Park.

* The Francois Peron National Park was gazetted in 1992.

* Licences to cut sandalwood were phased out in 2000.

* Most of Dirk Hartog Island was declared a National Park in 2009.

* Hamelin Station was purchased by Bush Heritage in 2015.

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Visitor Information

There is information at the Monkey Mia Resort as well as Parks and Wildlife Service, Shark Bay District Office, 63 Knight Terrace, Denham, tel: (08) 9948 2226.

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Useful Websites

There is a useful website at https://www.sharkbay.org.

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