By Margriet Ruurs
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.
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.
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.
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.