Destination: Shark Bay World Heritage Area

Chris Whitelaw — 14 March 2019

On the western edge of the Australian continent, about 800km north of Perth, is the Shark Bay World Heritage Area (WHA). Covering more than 22,000km², it is one of the world’s greatest wilderness treasures, with a unique combination of rare wildlife, abundant flora and stunning scenery unlike anywhere else on the planet. 

Shark Bay actually comprises two bays in a W shape – one bounded by the Wooramel Coast and Peron Peninsula, and the other by the Edel Land peninsula and Dirk Hartog Island – with a coastline meandering more than 1500km. The local Malgana Aboriginal people know Shark Bay as Gutharraguda, meaning ‘two waters’.

Shark Bay was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1991 because it meets four World Heritage criteria relating to natural values: ecosystems representing the Earth’s evolutionary history, ongoing ecological and biological processes, exceptional natural beauty, and significant natural habitats for in situ conservation. It also contains many sites of cultural and historical significance, such as ancient Aboriginal middens, shipwrecks, and the first European landing on the continent. 



THE LANDSCAPE

The terrestrial landscape is a place of many contrasts. Edel Land is typified by rocky limestone and wind-pruned scrub over long, white sand dunes. Its western edge features dramatic cliffs dropping into the Indian Ocean, while the eastern side has shallow sandy bays peppered with small rocky islands. Similarly, Dirk Hartog, Dorre and Bernier Islands to the north are elongated fingers of limestone overlain with sand dunes. In the centre of Shark Bay, Peron Peninsula has rolling red sand hills dotted with spinifex and plains interspersed with salty gypsum hollows known as ‘birridas’. 

The Wooramel coast stretches along the eastern edge of the WHA between the Wooramel and Gascoyne Rivers, which provide the only flows of freshwater into Shark Bay, as well as sediments that form broad deltas and intertidal mudflats with mangrove thickets.

The region lies at the junction of three major climatic zones – the temperate southwest, the semi-arid west and the tropical north – and straddles the transition of two botanical provinces.  These diverse ecosystems are renowned for their abundance of life. It is one of the most diverse floral zones in Western Australia with 850 species, of which 51 are endemic to the region, some considered new to science; five of Australia’s 26 endangered mammal species have their only populations in Shark Bay; and more than 230 (35 per cent) of Australia's bird species have been recorded in the WHA. 

THE SEASCAPE

About 6000 years ago, broad arid valleys were drowned by rising seas to form Shark Bay’s shallow inlets and pools. The bay’s hydrological structure, altered by the Faure Sill and a high evaporation rate, has produced an unusually steep salinity gradient, which has a marked effect on the distribution and abundance of marine organisms across three distinct biotic zones. 

Oceanic water from the Indian Ocean swirls into Shark Bay on the warm Leeuwin Current bringing tropical marine life, sharks and rays. Underlying the Leeuwin Current, at depths of around 400m, are cold, nutrient-rich waters from the sub-Antarctic, underwater highways followed by whales on their long migrations.

Metahaline water, one-and-a-half times saltier than the ocean, nurtures vast seagrass meadows that provide food for thousands of dugongs, and habitats for schools of snapper, mullet and whiting that attract predatory dolphins. The hypersaline water of Hamelin Pool, twice as salty as the ocean, has proved the ideal environment for the development of stromatolites (‘living fossils’) and other organisms that have adapted or genetically evolved to its languid shallows, including a cockle, a jellyfish and a pink snapper unique to Shark Bay.

Marine environments cover about 70 per cent of the Shark Bay WHA. The average depth of the clear, sheltered waters is only nine metres, with a sandy bed beautifully patterned with seagrass meadows, channels and banks. The coastline includes tidal flats, mangrove communities and white shell beaches in the shelter of the bay, and rocky reefs and sheer cliffs on the deep seaward sides.

Shark Bay’s sheltered coves and lush seagrass beds are a haven for a multitude of marine species, including green and loggerhead turtles (both endangered); an estimated 11,000 dugongs (about 12.5 per cent of the world population); increasing numbers of humpback and southern right whales that use Shark Bay as a migratory staging post; a famous population of resident bottlenose dolphins; and large numbers of sharks and manta rays (which are now considered globally threatened); a transition between temperate and tropical currents produces a mix of 323 species of fish, 218 bivalves and 80 of coral, as well as communities of sponges and other invertebrates.

SHARK BAY MARINE RESERVES

As well as enjoying World Heritage status, the waters of Shark Bay have special protection within the Shark Bay Marine Park and the Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve. These marine reserves are part of a network along the coast of  Western Australia, in place to protect areas of particular value, such as schooling sites, nursery areas, spawning and breeding grounds, and culturally significant places from Aboriginal sites to historic shipwrecks. 

The marine reserve network also supports tourism activities like whale watching, dolphin viewing, scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking and boat tours, and provides opportunities for scientific research and education about marine conservation. Shark Bay Marine Park is zoned to enable multiple use: recreation, commercial and biodiversity conservation. The location and coordinates of these zones, and a guide for the activities permitted in each zone, are shown in a brochure produced by the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, which is available online.

ABORIGINAL HERITAGE

Shark Bay is the traditional country of three Aboriginal language groups: the Malgana, across the bay’s central peninsulas and islands; the Nhanda who occupied the coastal strip south of Edel Land and Tamala down to Kalbarri; and the Yingkarta, along the Wooramel coast north to the Gascoyne River and some way inland. Aboriginal people first inhabited Shark Bay some 30,000 years ago, and moved to and from the area in response to changing sea levels and availability of freshwater and food. Their movements and occupancy stabilised when the sea reached its present level about 6000 years ago.

There are about 130 registered Aboriginal heritage sites in the Shark Bay area, generally close to the shoreline, including quarries, rock shelters, burial sites and middens of discarded shells, bone and other food-related artefacts. Edel Land was a particularly important place for early Aboriginal people with a stone quarry at Crayfish Bay, numerous middens and a burial site on Heirisson Prong. Peron Peninsula was also important with middens found at many locations, as well as fish traps and grinding grooves. All Aboriginal sites and artefacts are protected by law and it is illegal to disturb them.

Following European settlement, many Aboriginal men and women worked in the pearling industry which began in the 1850s and peaked in the 1870s. They gathered oysters in the shallows, skin-dived for them, and collected them in wire dredges towed behind sailing boats. WA’s early pearling industry, from Shark Bay to Broome, was notorious for its ill-treatment of Aboriginal people. Some Aboriginal workers were taken by force and most were not paid wages, just given basic foodstuffs, tobacco and a set of clothes. Living conditions in the pearlers’ camps were poor and many workers died of dysentery and other diseases.

Intimate knowledge of their country made Aboriginal people essential to the pastoral industry when it began in the late 1860s with the introduction of sheep. They were employed to patrol station boundaries, crutch and shear sheep, trap dingoes and foxes, repair mechanical equipment, build fences and yards, sink wells, and break-in horses.

Fishing has remained important to local Aboriginal people through the years and now ecotourism and conservation provide opportunities for management of their traditional country.

MARITIME HISTORY

The maritime history of Shark Bay began in 1616, when Dirk Hartog made the first landing by a European on Australian soil, at a place now known as Cape Inscription on the northern tip of Dirk Hartog Island. He was followed in 1697 by Willem de Vlamingh. Thereafter, scientific expeditions were led by William Dampier (1699), who named Shark Bay; St Alouarn (1772) who claimed the western half of New Holland for France (though his claim was never enacted); Nicolas Baudin in 1801-03, whose naturalist Francois Peron made a meticulous study of the peninsula that now bears his name; Louis de Freycinet (1818); and Henry Mangles Denham, who surveyed the area in 1858, producing charts that were used into the 1960s.

Shark Bay’s treacherous coastal cliffs and shallow bays have claimed numerous ships over the years, including whalers, cargo boats, fishing boats and pearl luggers. Shipwrecks of historic significance include the Dutch merchant ship Zuytdorp (1712), Paul Pry (1839), the French whaler Perseverant (1841), the British brigantine Macquarie (1878) and the Norwegian whaler Gudrun (1901). While the whereabouts of some wrecks are known, most have never been found. 

Though not technically the result of a ‘shipwreck’, a lifeboat from the German surface raider Kormoran came ashore at Carrarang Station with survivors from the ship’s crew, after a naval battle in November 1941 that resulted in the scuttling of Kormoran and the sinking of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney. 

Some shipwreck survivors’ camps have been discovered around the Shark Bay coastline, including that associated with the wreck of the French whaler Persévérant at Cape Levillain on the northern tip of Dirk Hartog Island, where archaeologists have discovered brass buttons, glass, ceramics, clay pipes and other artefacts. In the modern era, the wrecking on April 25, 1963 of the prawn trawler Nor 6, on the Zuytdorp Cliffs, and the subsequent 14-day ordeal of its only survivor, skipper Jack Drinan, ranks in the annals of Shark Bay history as one of its greatest tales of ingenuity and endurance, worthy of the monument to the event on the cliffs south of Steep Point.

SETTLEMENT AND INDUSTRY

Guano (seabird droppings) was mined from Shark Bay’s islands in the 1850s, initiating European settlement of the area, but the industry was short-lived as the islands were quickly stripped bare. 

Pearling also began around 1850 and peaked in the 1870s, with about 80 boats dredging the banks of Shark Bay. The best pearl shell was sent to England, France and Germany, while lesser-grade shell was discarded or put to novel use, like paving the streets of Freshwater Camp (Denham). The local industry collapsed in the 1930s when the pearl beds were exhausted and plastic buttons replaced mother-of-pearl.

When commercial fishing became an alternative to the waning pearling industry, many shallow-draught pearling cutters were pressed into service as fishing boats, using a beach seine technique used by local Aboriginal people to net sand whiting, bream, sea mullet, tailor and snapper. Since then, fishing has been Shark Bay’s economic mainstay; it is a major source of employment and notable for the long-time involvement of Aboriginal people. Larger vessels based in Carnarvon operate under strict conditions, which include restrictions on boat size, catch size, fishing gear, and must have turtle exclusion devices in prawn nets. 

Pastoralism was one of Shark Bay’s earliest and longest-running industries with the dry climate well-suited to sheep. The first pastoral leases were granted in the 1860s and by the 1960s there were about 142,000 sheep grazing on more than 15 sheep stations throughout Shark Bay. However, recurrent drought and the collapse of the wool market in the 1990s forced stations to destock and look for alternative income. Some stations experimented with cattle or goats, while others turned the environment to their advantage through ecotourism.

Today, Shark Bay is a popular destination for nature-based recreation across a wide range of activities – fishing, camping, four-wheel driving, birdwatching, snorkelling, diving, boating, kayaking and photography – and most residents earn their livelihood from industries that rely on the natural environment, such as tourism, hospitality and conservation management.

PERON PENINSULA

When viewed from the air, Peron Peninsula resembles an Aboriginal painting - rust red sand dunes with spinifex dots and birrida blotches, edged in bright white sand and swirling lagoons, surrounded by vivid blue ocean over sandy shoals patterned with seagrass meadows. The peninsula straddles the transition of two botanical zones, creating a unique mix of vegetation that is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, including many rare and threatened species endemic to Shark Bay. The sea around Peron Peninsula teems with marine fauna and schools of fish.

Most of the northern half of the peninsula is covered by the Francois Peron National Park, 52,500 hectares of arid shrublands, rolling sand plains and circular depressions, bounded by spectacular coastal scenery. In 1881, north Peron was leased as a pastoral station. When the station became a national park in 1993, its homestead, windmills, shearing shed and yards were restored as a cultural heritage precinct at the southern entrance to the park, just 15 minutes from Denham.

For 10 kilometres beyond the homestead, a sandy, copper-coloured track leads to Big Lagoon, which was a land-locked salt lake system until it was inundated by rising sea-levels to create this attractive turquoise lagoon. Canoeing, kayaking and paddle-boarding are great ways to explore the waterway, but check the tides (for current direction) and wind forecast before you start paddling. Big Lagoon has the best camping and day use facilities in the national park, including toilets and barbeque shelters. The lagoon is an important fish nursery, and its waters north of the campground are a sanctuary zone where fishing is prohibited.

North of the Big Lagoon turn-off, the park is bisected by a 54-kilometre 4WD track (unsuitable for caravans or large boat trailers) that ends at Cape Peron, where red dunes meet brilliant white beaches that dip into turquoise waters. The confluence of two major currents at this northerly tip make it unsafe for swimming. The one and a half kilometre Wanamalu walking trail between the Cape and Skipjack Point provides outstanding views of the coastline 

and marine life in the sparkling waters of the Indian Ocean. 

Along the western side of the Cape, the coast is dotted with several camping areas with easy access to the water at Bottle Bay, Gregories (for snorkelling over one of the most accessible reef systems within Shark Bay) and South Gregories. Fishing is popular along this stretch of coastline (whiting, bream and kingfish are the likely catches), either from the shore or small dinghies which can be launched from the beach at both Bottle Bay and South Gregories. There is no vehicle access to the beach at Gregories. Bottle Bay and Gregories have gas barbeques and all campsites have toilets. On the eastern side of the Cape, the long crescent shoreline of Herald Bight offers informal beachside camping, accessible by boats and sheltered from south-westerly winds. 

MONKEY MIA

Monkey Mia is world-renowned for its resident population of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins that attract visitors to the conservation area for the rare pleasure of seeing these playful creatures up close. As enchanting as these marine mammals are, the ‘Dolphin Experience’ is strictly managed by Parks and Wildlife Service officers to ensure that the dolphins remain ‘wild’, and don’t become dependent on the daily feeding sessions. The adjacent Monkey Mia Resort offers a variety of accommodation, including camp sites for caravans and tents, with a jetty and boat launching facility next to the recreation zone.

DENHAM

The town of Denham was gazetted in 1898 and named after Sir Henry Mangles Denham RN, who surveyed Shark Bay aboard HMS Herald in 1858. Today, Denham is the commercial and administrative centre for the Shire of Shark Bay. This friendly seaside town has an attractive white-sand beach backed by an esplanade lined with palm trees that lend a tropical vibe to the town centre along Knight Terrace. A recreational jetty serves fishing and boating enthusiasts, and a commercial jetty hosts a bevy of tour operators. Restaurants, a golf course and a wide range of accommodation cater for the estimated 110,000 tourists who flock to the town every year. The Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre is a great introduction to the area's natural and historical treasures.

South of Denham, the Peron Peninsula is classic mainland Shark Bay – an arid landscape of red undulating sandplains and low acacia scrublands, flanked by Hamelin Pool and L’haridon Bight on one side, and Henri Freycinet Harbour on the other. Along the west coast are stretches of steep cliffs, with excellent vantage points at Eagle Bluff and Goulet Bluff offering spectacular views over the bay towards Heirisson Prong – marine life is clearly visible in its shallow waters. The Shire of Shark Bay manages informal camping with no facilities at Fowler’s Camp and Whalebone. All these sites are accessible via short gravel roads suitable for all vehicles and the remote beaches can easily be explored by foot. 

An outstanding feature of the L’haridon Bight is Shell Beach, a beautiful snow-white ridge composed of billions of shells of the mollusc commonly known as the Hamelin cockle. Huge numbers of these tiny shells are swept on shore during periodic storms and collect in deposits up to 10 metres thick over many kilometres. Over time, these deposits have become compacted into solid layers (known as Hamelin coquina, or shell rock) that have been quarried into blocks and used for building material.

THE WOORAMEL COAST

Fishing is possible along the coastline between Carnarvon and Gladstone, although fishing is generally better in the deeper waters offshore. You can launch boats from the beach at Bush Bay or the boat ramp at Gladstone. The Gladstone Special Purpose Zone helps conserve the local population of dugongs which visit the area to breed during summer; the waters south of the Gladstone boat ramp are closed to boating from September 1 to January 15, and north of the ramp between December 1 and March 31. Disappointment Reach Sanctuary Zone north of Gladstone is also an important dugong habitat and is closed to fishing all year. The Wooramel Special Purpose Zone protects significant seagrass meadows and care should be taken not to disturb turtles and dugongs among them. Fishing regulations are also in place.

EDEL LAND PENINSULA

This remarkable area is flanked on its western side by the impressive Zuytdorp Cliffs, limestone ramparts that rear up from the Indian Ocean and extend southward in an almost unbroken 200-kilometre arc to Kalbarri. (The cliffs are named after the Dutch ship, Zuytdorp, that was wrecked against them in 1712.) At the northern tip of the peninsula, the most westerly point of the Australian mainland, the cliffs rise 200 metres sheer from the ocean, moving Dutch seafarer Willem de Vlamingh to name it ‘Steyle Hock’ (Steep Point) when he anchored nearby in 1697. Steep Point is a bleak and barren limestone shelf where indigo swells roll in from the Indian Ocean to dash themselves against the sheer cliffs and erupt in geysers of their own backwash.

This arid, windswept coastline is backed by sweeping white sand dunes, grooved into a north-south alignment by prevailing winds, over terrain that slopes gently eastward to prongs and secluded, crescent beaches fronting Shark Bay. The landscape is dotted with grotto-like formations of limestone overhangs, platforms, caves and crevices, with a cover of acacia scrub that has been pruned and sculpted by the wind.

The proposed Edel Land National Park extends from Steep Point to just south of False Entrance and encompasses much of Bellefin Prong. It is about 185 kilometres by road from the Northwest Coastal Highway to Steep Point, including 140 kilometres of unsealed road. The last 30 kilkometres is a single lane of soft track winding around sand dunes, requiring a high clearance 4WD vehicle. Steep Point and Shelter Bay can also be accessed by boat, a journey of 50 kilometres from Denham via South Passage.

Close by Steep Point, The Oven/Faultline is a popular wilderness camping destination, where the cliffs offer some of the best shore-based game fishing in Australia. Serious fishers float baits offshore with helium balloons and haul their catches up cliffs using special gaffs, although it is not unusual for sharks to take fish before they are landed. Boat-based fishing is also popular in this area, with many people launching boats from Shelter Bay, but the South Passage has strong currents and treacherous tidal movements, so take all necessary precautions and ensure you have the required safety equipment.

Shelter Bay, a few kilometres inside South Passage from Steep Point, is the most popular camping location for visitors to this area. The bay offers idyllic camp sites along a crescent beach, sheltered from the prevailing southerly winds. Boats can be launched directly from the beach into South Passage for fishing and diving. Facilities in this remote area are limited to pit toilets and campers need to be self-sufficient with food, water and fuel. Sites are very popular, especially between April and October when winds are lighter and the sea calmer, so booking well in advance is recommended. Permits are required and fees apply.

From Steep Point a 4WD track follows the cliffs along the westerly edge of Edel Land for more than 20 kilometres to Thunder Bay, with a series of vantage points for spectacular views along the way. At Nor 6, 8 kilometres south of Steep Point, stands a monument to the fishing vessel that was wrecked on the rocks below in 1963, and a 360-degree view of the peninsula from the lookout.

Further south, at Thunder Bay and False Entrance, the cliffs come to life, breathing deeply as massive waves crash against them, pumping up through blowholes in geysers that can reach up to 20 metres into the air. Anglers fish from the exposed point for mackerel and other pelagic species in much the same way as at Steep Point. Camping is available at False Entrance, with no facilities.

On the eastern side of Edel Land, an inlet separates Bellefin and Heirisson Prongs, which the French explorer Nicolas Baudin named ‘Havre Inutile’ (Unusable Harbour) because it was a shallow cul-de-sac, and is now known as Useless Inlet. It may lead nowhere for ships but the 130-square-kilometre Shark Bay saltfield at the southern end of the inlet has led the way in innovative solar-evaporative salt production since the mid-1960s. The operation is conducted by Shark Bay Salt Pty Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Mitsui & Co. Ltd, and all salt produced at Shark Bay goes to Japan for industrial use.

DIRK HARTOG ISLAND

For those who like a little seclusion, Dirk Hartog Island (DHI) is the perfect location. At 63,000 hectares, it is Western Australia’s largest island (80 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide), accessible only by private boat (about 35 kilometres from Denham, as the crow flies), a commercial barge service from Steep Point (March to October) or light aircraft charter, all of which must be pre-booked. If boating to the island, be aware of variable weather conditions and strong southerly winds that may prevent the journey in summer. Once on the island, a high clearance 4WD vehicle is required to get around and only 20 private vehicles are permitted at any one time. The island’s single lane four-wheel drive tracks are mostly soft sand but are rocky in places. 

Millennia of Indian Ocean currents and incessant winds have shaped the distinctive character of this long, rugged island. Towering seaward cliffs give way to a sand dune spine that slopes eastward into low limestone coastal bays and headlands. The low shrubby vegetation harbours a range of animal life, some of which is found nowhere else. Seabirds abound along the protected eastern coast, with species nesting on islands close to shore. Dugongs, turtles, humpback whales, giant manta rays and whale sharks all visit the waters surrounding the island, making it an underwater paradise for snorkelers, divers and wildlife lovers. Each year more than 3,000 loggerhead turtles nest on the beaches of Turtle Bay, which is one of the five most important rookeries for the species in the world.

Cape Inscription, at the northern tip of DHI, is celebrated as the site of the first recorded European landing on Australian soil, by Dirk Hartog on 25 October 1616. This historic site is overlooked by a 16.5-metre lighthouse built in 1909 and lighthouse keepers’ quarters that were restored in 2012.

If you’re taking a 4WD to the island you can visit several places along its magnificent cliff-dominated west coast: Urchin Point and West Point (aka ‘The Block’, so called for giant slabs of limestone dumped by a tsunami), both with huts popular among fishers for the shelter they provide from the wind; Mystery Beach, in a bay that forms a natural wreckage trap, renowned as a repository of flotsam and jetsam of all shapes, sizes and origins; Charlies Harbour/Quoin Head, a place enjoyed as much for its fishing as for the dramatic scenery of massive chunks of collapsed cliffs; Blowholes, where ocean swells push water up through holes in the rock shelf at the base of the cliffs; and Surf Point, where tropical fish and coral communities occur in three to four metres of water (fishing is not permitted in this marine park sanctuary zone). 

The island’s eastern coastline, characterised by protected beaches and shallow bays, also has many attractions: Dampiers Landing, a favourite with history buffs as the place where William Dampier came ashore in August 1699; Withnell Point, once a sheltered haven for boats, but now shallower and less accessible due storm surges; Sandy Point, where boats can access the beach, from which fishing is permitted (but not in the offshore marine sanctuary zone, which protects diverse coral communities); Louisa Bay, where boats can access the beach and coral communities can be enjoyed by divers and snorkelers about 200 metres from the shore; Quoin Bluff South, with stone remains of a jetty and storehouse that was once part of an army garrison based here in 1851; and Notch Point, also accessible by boat.

Designated campsites are managed by the Parks and Wildlife Service along both sides of the island and bookings must be made prior to arrival. Fees apply. Campfires are not permitted on DHI and there are no facilities, services or supplies so you need to be entirely self-sufficient. Accommodation and catering are available in the privately-operated Dirk Hartog Island Lodge.

Hamelin Pool Stromatolites

Hamelin Pool is a partially enclosed basin separated from the open reaches of Shark Bay by the Faure Sill, a bank of sediment, sand and seagrass between Peron Peninsula and the Wooramel coast, that restricts the flow of tides to the Pool. High evaporation, meagre rainfall and restricted tidal flushing combine to make the water south of the sill ‘hypersaline’ (twice as salty as sea water). This hypersalinity, inimical to most organisms, is conducive to the growth of cyanobacteria (single-celled blue-green algae), which trap and bind sediment and each other to form mushroom-like structures called ‘stromatolites’.

Stromatolites are regarded as ‘living fossils’ because cyanobacteria was the first living organism on the planet, inhabiting Earth’s primordial seas 3500 million years ago. They are the oldest form of life on Earth and stromatolite fossils appear in ancient rocks, like those of the nearby Pilbara. Stromatolites played a crucial role in the evolution of higher life forms by producing oxygen through photosynthesis, gradually, over millions of years, increasing the amount of that gas in the atmosphere to its present concentration (about 20 per cent).

Hamelin Pool is one of only four places in the world where living marine stromatolites exist and the Shark Bay colony is by far the biggest and most diverse on earth. The stromatolites at Hamelin Pool began forming between 2000 to 3000 years ago. Some of them are inactive because they have been exposed too long above shallow water and hardened into rock, while most of them continue to grow, at the rate of about 0.4mm a year. 

A 200m boardwalk along a purpose-built jetty provides excellent views of the colony, especially at low tide, without damaging these fragile structures. Boating, anchoring, swimming, diving and snorkelling are not permitted over stromatolites or within 300m of the shore in the Hamelin Pool Marine Reserve.

Seagrass

Seagrasses are aquatic flowering plants that form meadows in near-shore brackish or marine waters in temperate and tropical regions. Shark Bay’s waters are clear and shallow, generally less than 10m deep within 1km of the shore, a mixture of warm tropical and cool temperate currents all contributing to a marine environment in which seagrasses flourish.

Shark Bay has the largest seagrass meadows in the world, in both size and diversity. Of the 60 seagrass species that exist globally, 12 grow in Shark Bay (in some places, nine species within a square metre) covering more than 4000km² of the bay’s sandy bottom. The single biggest concentration is the Wooramel Seagrass Bank – at 1030km², it is larger than the Perth metropolitan area. Across Shark Bay, seagrasses produce about 8 million tonnes of leaf material a year – equivalent to four to six wheat crops a year from a land area of comparable size.

Seagrass meadows are literally and figuratively the foundation of Shark Bay marine life, playing a significant and continuing role in the evolution of its diverse aquatic ecosystems; their presence is one of the many reasons Shark Bay is accorded World Heritage status. They stabilise the sea floor, dampen wave action, cleanse water and provide food and habitat for hundreds of marine species – especially for more than 11,000 dugongs, one of the world’s biggest populations.

Key Contacts

DEPARTMENT OF BIODIVERSITY, CONSERVATION AND ATTRACTIONS 

Parks and Wildlife Service - Shark Bay District 61-63 Knight Terrace, Denham 

P (08) 9948 2226

STEEP POINT RANGER STATION

P (08) 9948 3993

E steeppointranger@dbca.wa.gov.au

UHF 16 

27 MHz 68 

VHF 16

W www.sharkbay.org and www.dbca.wa.gov.au

SHARK BAY WORLD HERITAGE PROJECT OFFICER

P (08) 9948 2210

MONKEY MIA RESERVE

P (08) 9948 1366 

W www.sharkbay.org

DEPARTMENT OF PRIMARY INDUSTRIES AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT 

Denham District Office, Knight Terrace, Denham 

P (08) 9948 2250

DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES (DENHAM)

P (08) 9948 1210

W www.fish.wa.gov.au

BUREAU OF METEOROLOGY

W bom.gov.au/marine

BOATING WEATHER 

P 1900 955 350

SHARK BAY VOLUNTEER MARINE RESCUE

Emergency contact 

VHF 16 

27 MHz 88

Shark Bay (VMR 675) 

P (08) 9948 1376

Carnarvon (VMR 676) 

P (08) 9941 3613.

Tags

Outback Travel Destination Ocean Shark Bay Boat Yacht

Photographer

Chris Whitelaw