Shark Bay

Today was a transition day - a long drive down the highway across a landscape that varied only marginally in its flat, low shrubby vegetation. The trip was marked by two events; firstly, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn and secondly, crossing a cold front that swept a band of rain in from the west. We were definitely in the influence of the southern weather patterns.

The fair Nello takes a bit of latitude

From Carnarvon on, we played cache-cache with the passing showers, before turning off the highway to head westward out towards Shark Bay, our destination and a region listed as part of the World's Heritage for its unique and fragile environment.

Here comes the rain

The old Post Office at Hamelin Pool

Still, crossing the treeless shrubby plains that surround the bay, its aesthetic charms are not immediately obvious - I could understand why the Dutch sailors who kept crashing their ships into this coastline and then rowing their smallboats up to the Spice Islands, thought of it only as a place to escape from and not worth claiming, as was the colonial habit of the day. The sign to Hamelin Pool stopped my musings and we turned off - here was something to visit that made the passing of the Dutch sailing ships seem like yesterday.

Old quarry where shellgrit blocks were cut for building material

Welcome to Shark Bay

A cluster of defunct stromalites

We were about to pay homage to the stromatolites, who ruled the earth 3 billion years ago, producing oxygen as one of their waste products, and in so doing made life on earth as we know it today possible. Not a bad effort for a unicellular cyanobacteria that grows as a thin film on a rocky knob in the sea - hail great stromatolites!! Hypersaline Hamelin Pool is now one of their last refuges and you can view them in the tidal zone on the edge of a compacted shellgrit beach.

Living stromatolites - still producing oxygen

A little way further and we stopped at the second site of interest, Shell Beach in L'Haridon Bight. Here the beach is formed of billions of shells of a tiny cockle that thrives in Shark Bay and which have been washed up on its southern shores for thousands of years - a strange, glaringly white and gritty landscape.

Shoreline at L'Haridon

Sunglasses on - the shellgrit beach of L'Haridon Bight

Soon after leaving the shells of L'Haridon, we crossed the narrow neck of land leading to the Peron Peninsula and passed through the 3km stretch of electrified fencing that blocks it off. This fencing is designed to keep out domestic stock and feral predators - foxes and cats - that have decimated the local wildlife. Combined with an intensive control program within the peninsula, it provides a safe haven for the survivng native fauna and has permitted the reintroduction of the woylie, bilby, hare-wallabies, brown bandicoot and mallee fowl. Welcome to the Peron Peninsula and Project Eden - a great success, but what an indictment of past human activity that we have to fence our native animals in to save them!!!!!

Our third stop on the way through was Eagle Bluff, a high point overlooking Freycinet Harbour. Below the bluff, we could see the sandy seabed and adjacent dark beds of sea-grass. It is the sea-grass meadows of Shark Bay that contribute to its uniqueness, providing a habitat in which the rare and endangered dugongs thrive. It is said that you can see the shapes of rays, sharks and other marine creatures below you in the shallow waters beneath Eagle Bluff, but not when the wind is whipping up the ocean surface, as it was today.

Lighter sandy bottom and dark sea-grass beds at Eagle Bluff

We pushed on to Denham, shellgrit capital of the world and a quiet little fishing town and tourist centre, where we set up camp. That night we decided that we needed a bit of a change from camp cuisine, so we headed off to the furthest-west pub on the Australian continent to sample the local seafood at "The Big Groper", followed by an evening of karaoke. The rhythm of life in Denham is very different.

Monkey Mia walks

By next morning, the showers had moved on, and we pushed on across the Peron Peninsula to Monkey Mia, that must-visit destination of the backpacker generation, where the local pod of bottle-nosed dolphins have trained humans to feed them and which come into shore every day to observe the behaviour of these strange land-bound creatures. I confess to being a bit dubious that this was going to be an overcommercialised resort and was pleasantly surprised to find it a peaceful escape.

We set up in the campground on a shellgrit flat next to the quiet waters of Shark Bay. Within minutes the local emus arrived to check out the new campers.

The emus checking out our campsite

Young emu

On the Wulyibidi Yaninyina Track

Red, white and blue - the colours of
the Peron Peninsula

The red sands of the interior dunes

Zebra finch at the waterhole

To get to know our surrounds a bit better, we undertook a 10km walk, the first few kilometres along a marked trail to the south of the resort and the rest along the shoreline to the north and into Peron National Park. Monkey Mia is situated on a point where low white sandy / shellgritty dunes have accumulated beneath a higher tier of red sandstone that forms the Peron Peninsula. The Wulyibidi Yaninyina Track took us across these dunes and up onto the red sands of the Peron limestone plateau, a landscape of intense colours and scattered shrubs. The landscape may look barren, but the sands were covered with the tracks of reptiles and small marsupials and the twittering of small wrens, finches and flycatchers followed us around.

The track then dropped back down to cross the white sands again and return to the resort via the beach, past a flock of cormorants and pelicans resting on a small sand spit.

White coastal sand dunes

Return along the beach

A colony of cormorants and the odd pelican

Crossing the resort, we followed the gentle curve of the beach northward for several kilometres, past a curiously formed rock platform that followed the shoreline. The rocks were comprised of compacted shell and beds of oysters, which made the fair Nello's taste buds begin to salivate. Out on the bay, the water was flat and intensely blue - with barely enough wind to fill the sails of the 60 foot ocean racing catamaran "Shotover" as it passed by.

The curious green, black and pink banding of the rock platform


The "Shotover" salis by

Leaving the platform behind, we crossed into Peron National Park to reach Red Cliffs, a spectacular area of low red cliffs (what else), jumbled rocks and pale pink sand, where the Peron limestones reach the sea. It was a good spot to explore and, in the case of the oyster-loving Nello, rediscover her hunter-gatherer instincts. It was a pleasant introduction to the strange and strangely-coloured landscapes of Shark Bay.

The incredible redness of Peron

A passing band of cloud arrives to suck the colour from the landscape

Toe-breaker Rocks

Unfortunately, while returning the fair and bare-footed Nello painfully tested out the hardness of the knobbly limestone rock platform with her middle toe, obliging her to hobble back to Monkey Mia. We were to find out later that it was broken, so it was just as well this was the last walk of our northwestern adventure - if it hadn't been already it would most certainly have been.

The colours of Shark Bay

Monkey Mia dolphins

As mentioned, dolphins are what make Monkey Mia famous, or more particularly three families of the 3000 dolphins that call Shark Bay home. The females and calves of these families arrive each day to cavort in the shallows and have a feed of fish. So each morning around 7.30am, a herd of humans gathers along the foreshore to watch. The interaction is strictly regulated by wildlife officers (no touching - out of the water when the dolphins receive a limited amount of food), who provide a lot of information about dolphin biology and behaviour in the course of the visit.

The dolphins come when they choose, though usually they decide to have three quick feeds between 7.30am and 10am - any later and your wait would be in vain - they are back in the waters of the bay, trawling the sea-grass beds or using one of their many other fish-hunting techniques.

The sun rises over Monkey Mia as dolphin-watchers gather

Cormorant checking out the crowd

The cliffs of Peron glowing red at dawn

A pelican arrives for a feed as well

Thus we were there with everyone else just after sunrise on a beautifully calm and sunny morning, ankle deep in the cold waters of Shark Bay, waiting for the dolphins. It was an interesting encounter and the closest that we will probably get to a wild dolphin, but I am still a bit ambivalent about such activities. Is it just another "feeding of the animals" spectacle or is it more? Certainly it is well regulated, as only a few selected females are fed (males are too aggressive) and are given only a small proportion of their daily fish intake.

One of the famous bottle-nosed dolphins of Monky Mia doing
a shore patrol

The rangers make it educational and clearly there is some strange attachment of humans to dolphins. It was interesting that a loggerhead turtle (much rarer than dolphins) popped its head up and was virtually ignored, while the ooohs and aaahs when the first dolphins deigned to appear could almost be felt. In the end, the question was who has trained who - I suspected that the dolphins considered that they had trained the humans, which made me feel better about the whole process (see box below).

The dolphins start coming into shore ....

... to generate oohs and aahs from the crowd

The fair Nello gets to hand feed a dolphin


Portrait of Puck, the bottle-nosed dolphin

The Dolphin-Pelican conspiracy

When dolphins are being fed for all the public to see at Monkey Mia, behind the scenes the pelicans are also discretely getting a bucket of fish. This is ostensibly to stop the pelicans swooping down and stealing fish from the dolphins during the feeding session. This seemed an unlikely event to us and we suspected there was more too it - then spotted the conspirators planning their strategy (see photo) and realised that the two cunning pescivores have actually contrived this pseudo-competition to ensure that they both get a free feed from the gullible humans - clever!!!!

Strange companions - proof of the dolphin-pelican conspiracy

Sadly, the fickle weather of Shark Bay changed and by early afternoon another cold front with rain squalls passed through, which was doubly sad for us as we had decided to take a cruise on the bay as a farewell activity - still we did get to sail on "Shotover", one of the world's fastest ocean-going catamarans, all donned out in yellow wet weather gear like the crew of a great yacht race. By the time that we returned to harbour, the weather had returned to that perfect sunny calm of the morning.

Ho ho me hardies - raise the mainsail!

Approaching squall on Shark Bay

The sun returns to illuminate the cliffs of Peron Peninsula

On board the "Shotover"


Staircase to the sun

Pelican in silver and gold

The end of the day - the end of the trip

Thus, we took our deckchairs and cold beers down to the beach and bade our farewells, while watching another glorious sunset over the almost glassy waters of Shark Bay - a good way to forget about broken toes. It was also a fitting way to end our adventures - the next day we would be heading off to Perth and a flight back home.