Saturday, 3 November 2012

3-7 November 2012, Shark Bay, Monkey Mia WA

I always thought the main attraction of Shark Bay was Monkey Mia, so was surprised at the range of activities and fascinating history of the area.

First we visited Hamelin Pool, which is a bay at the base of Shark Bay and home to an early telegraph station and the Stromatolites, the worlds’ oldest living creatures.  Who would have thought!  Basically, they are a form of bacteria that photosynthesis during the day to produce oxygen and during the night they help to bind together sand and shells to make these rocky looking stacks. 

This is what stromatolites look like - the worlds oldest living organism and the
reason we are all here (if you believe in evolutionary theory that is!)

The stromatolites are protected, so a number of boardwalks have been
constructed over them for closer viewing.

They only survive in hyper saline (very salty) water which leads to very few predators.  These Stromatolites are estimated to be 3000 years old and still growing, but they are descended from 3.5billion years ago.  3.5 billion!  I just can’t get my head around it.  Apart from being important due to their age, the oxygen they produced back in the early days meant that the atmosphere on earth could support life as we know it and plants and animals and ultimately humans evolved.  Fascinating stuff.  I just can’t believe I have never heard of them before and were not taught about them at school.  Another living batch of Stromatolites lives on an inaccessible reef in Barbados.  Fossilised Stromatolites have been found near Marble Bar, inland WA, providing evidence that the inland of WA was also once under water.

We then went and saw Shell Beach, a beach covered with millions of coquina shells. These small shells also only like extra salty water and wash up in huge amounts.  As they dry out, they compact with sand and become very hard and can be quarried and used as building material.  Back at Hamelin Pool we saw an old quarry.  Denham has a restaurant and a church made out of coquina.  At shell beach, in some areas the shells are 5m deep and the water is crystal clear.  Larry and I have swum in the Dead Sea in Jordan and still remember the increased buoyancy of the salty water and also how much it stung any cuts or nicks on your body!  As a result, we decided not to go for a swim at Shell Bay, as tempting as the water looked.

Coquina shells

Shell Beach, Shark Bay

Kate next to Coquina shell bricks
Restaurant in Denham made of coquina shells

We camped overnight at Goulet Bluff ($10) and had no other vans in sight.  It even rained during the night which was a treat as the last rain we’d seen was at Adel’s Grove back in May.
Our campsite at Goulet Bluff, Shark Bay

We set the alarm and got up early to travel 30km to Monkey Mia to see the dolphins.  Most mornings, for the last 40 years, at least one dolphin has come into the shallows to be hand fed. Over 140 people were there for the first feeding and we stayed for the second feeding and the tourist numbers had dropped to about half.  It was tourist central and must be horrendous during the peak season.
Hand feeding the dolphins, Monkey Mia

This shows how used to people these dolphins have become.

The rangers talk about the dolphins for about 20 minutes before selecting a few people to feed the dolphins.  Fortunately E & K were chosen and went out together.  The whole thing is very controlled with lots of rules supposedly for the benefit of the dolphins.  After the feeding we watched some video footage and were surprised to see how aggressive dolphins are – not at all the friendly docile creatures depicted in ‘Flipper’ (a 1970’s television series for anyone reading this not old enough to remember Flipper!).  For instance, they are the only animal in the wild who kill other animals, including baby dolphins, for reasons other than hunger (ie the kill just for the fun of it), and two male dolphins will keep a female dolphin trapped between them for up to a month at a time to prevent her from mating with anyone else and will attack her if she tries to get away.  Quite the sexual predator! Most of the cuts and welts on dolphins (including their fins) which were once thought to be from boat propellers, fishing nets etc, are actually a result of this aggressive behaviour.
A day trip to Cape Peron (50km on sand tracks) was fabulous for seeing the colours of Shark Bay – red sand meets white sand meets turquoise ocean water meets blue sky. There are walks and lookouts where we saw manta rays, turtles and a dugong (we think) in the shallow waters. The sight and smell of thousands of cormorants along the sea edge is something to see.

Comorants - thousands of them.

This photo shows the different coloured sand and water and the line
of comorants.

Cape Peron, Shark Bay
On our return we stopped at Peron Homestead, an old sheep station which has a very small, very hot artisan spa to relax in and an excellent old shearing shed to wander through.

Hot artisan spa, constructed in the 1940's

Interior of the shearing shed at Peron Homestead.  Last used in the 1960's.

Fleece sorting table

Bales of wool bagged according to their wool classification
I’m glad we didn’t hit this area during peak grey nomad period or school holidays as I think the crowds would have detracted from the beauty of the area.  It’s easy to see why it has world heritage classification.

Loggerhead turtle

It was windy at Eagle Bluff, a viewing area of the dugong seagrass beds

Loved this sign.  Useless Loop is named because it is not a loop at all! 
It also leads to a location known as Desperation Bay!
This is the route to the most western point of Australia - Point Steep,
but 130 km of pretty rough 4WD so we opted not to go - this time!

Do you know who was the first European to set foot on Australian soil?  James Cook? Wrong!
It was Dirk Hartog in 1616, followed by over a dozen Dutch and French explorers.

Travellers Tips: The Shark Bay Shire has four camping areas for $10 per night, but you can only book via the visitors centre on the day you want to camp and can only stay one night in total. However, we were completely alone at our campsite at this time of the year and did not see a ranger/caretaker. If you are travelling in the off-season, ask the caravan parks in Denham for any specials, we found another ‘pay 2, stay 3’park. Shark Bay Discovery Centre was $28 family. Quite good if you have older kids, but would be wasted on any kids under the age of 8 as it is mostly text based and not very interactive. Kids can do a quiz sheet, but both girls (8 & 11) struggled with some of the questions and got discouraged quickly. Denham has a nice grassed foreshore, shallow swimming and kids playground opposite. Beware the winds if you are travelling late in the year. Trip to Cape Peron is definitely 4WD only and there is a tyre pressure bay at the entrance to deflate and then inflate your tyres. The hot Artisan pool at Peron Homestead is free and refreshing and is open till late at night with picnic tables, barbeques etc. The sheep shearing shed is probably the best we’ve seen. Free entry.

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