10 Jan 2014

Evolution At Work, on Australia’s West Coast

By Margriet Ruurs

Everyone knows of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, on the east coast. The west coast, however, has quietly been harbouring a secret: the Ningaloo Reef and Shark Bay World Heritage areas, some 700 km north of Perth, the capital city of the state of Western Australia, are world class attractions but much less visited.

We drive thousands of kilometres through dry, red-soil desert dotted with shrubs, north from Sydney, then west across the Outback. Apart from the odd kangaroo, wallabee or emu, we don’t see many signs of wildlife. And even fewer signs of other people. So it comes as a surprise to find out that some 100,000 visitors per year visit Shark Bay World Heritage Drive. But once you reach this road of global significance, there is plenty to see.

Our first stop, after turning off the North West Coastal Highway, is Hamelin Pool. I had read about this area in Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country. Reading his description of stromatolites left me curious. Would there be brilliant colors? Would it look gory?

Stromatolites are living fossils that contain microbes similar to those found in rocks dating back some 3,500 million years. They are, in fact, the earliest record of life on earth. If stromatolites had not developed, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, you and I might never have come into existence. So we owe a lot to these early life forms and I was curious to see them.

To my untrained eye, they resemble lava formations. Not much taller than two feet, the pillars of rock sit in aqua salt water at the edge of the ocean. Nice, but not spectacular. As if emphasizing the fact that looks can be deceiving, you’d never suspect the significance of these rounded gray and black rocks. But these stromatolites are found in only two places on earth, earning them enough credit to receive special UNESCO status.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) only grants this special recognition to areas of outstanding universal value, and only when they meet specific criteria. Shark Bay earns its recognition by being outstanding in four areas: natural beauty, history of the earth, ecological processes and biological diversity. The World Heritage area covers over two million hectares, protecting unique landscapes as well as many endangered species of animals. Other areas in the world of the same calibre include the Galapagos Island and the Grand Canyon. In comparison, Grand Canyon National Park encompasses just shy of 500,000 hectares and receives some five million visitors per year!

The World Heritage Drive continues north-west onto the Shark Bay peninsula.

Our next stop is Shell Beach. The waters of Shark Bay are home to billions of tiny coquina bivalve shells. High salinity has resulted in the accumulation of millions of these shells along the shore. The shellfish have existed here, in huge numbers, for thousands of years, before being washed ashore, ground up into fine white particles. The 60-km-long stretch known as Shell Beach reaches a depth of some 7 to 10 metres of pure white shells. The effect is brilliant; a long, snow-white beach bordered by aqua-blue ocean waters.

The road ends at Monkey Mia. This reserve is among the best known attractions Australia has to offer. It is here that wild dolphins have been coming to interact with people for over 40 years. I had heard many stories, most people telling me that I should have gone there years ago. “It has really changed,” people told me, “You can’t touch the dolphins anymore... It’s very regulated.” So my expectations were not high and I feared an economic exploitation of a natural phenomena.

My visit to Monkey Mia, however, was fun! I was skeptical of how wild these dolphins would be. And to some extent they have, of course, been conditioned by feedings. But this does not take away from the fact that no one knows if or when the dolphins will show up.

Under the jurisdiction of the Department of Parks and Wildlife of the government of Western Australia, rangers greet several hundred visitors from all over the world around 8:00 each morning. They explain basic guidelines, such as no touching and no sunscreen on your legs, before giving information on the local pod. Nicky has been visiting this beach since the seventies. She brings her children who, in turn, come and visit as they grow older. Anywhere from 2 to 26 dolphins might show up at any given morning.

“We can only have five dolphins in our interaction program,” the ranger explains. And these five are always females who have been proven to be good hunters and good mothers. Thus they will not teach bad habits or neglect their offspring. Of course, using only females ensures the continuation of a program on which an entire resort now is built.

But the rangers talk extensively to the visitors, giving everyone a chance to observe, take photos and ask questions. There’s no rush, no feeding frenzy. When the dolphins feel that they have waited long enough, they are fed a few fish before they disappear into the ocean again.

For lots of information and even a virtual tour, go to the Shark Bay website.

All photos by Margriet Ruurs.

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