The next stop on our way down along the west coast is Shark Bay. It’s a huge marine park comprised of multiple national parks and World Heritage Areas. The first bay, Hamelin Pool, is home to some of Earth’s first creatures: stromatolites (cyanobacteria). While they’re not much to look at, walking amongst them is like walking back in time, to see the organisms responsible for making the oxygen in our atmosphere.
A little farther up the peninsula is Shell Beach, a suitable name for a vast stretch of beach made entirely of little cockle shells that thrive in the super-salty water of the shallow bay, 25-30 feet deep in some areas. They used to make stone bricks out of them, too.
Farther still, is an amazing rugged cliff looking down on crystal blue ocean where the casual onlooker can sit back and leisurely watch all sorts of sea creatures wander into the bay. Within a few minutes we saw shovel-nosed sharks, several reef sharks, stingrays, a pod of dolphins, sea turtles and humpback whales in the distance. Not bad!
That night we celebrated with margaritas! Our tequila even came with its own sombrero.
The next morning we made friends with a shingleback skink who was happily sunning herself in the middle of the road, who, when provoked by a waving hand, showed-off her fabulous blue tongue 🙂
Our next stop was a very touristy spot called Monkey Mia (I still haven’t figured out why it had that name) where local humans have been hand-feeding wild dolphins for decades. In the ’60s they used to let people feed them as much as they pleased, and the dolphins loved it, coming back every day to get a free meal. However, after about 20 years they noticed a sharp decline in young dolphins. Turns out all the free meals meant the mother dolphins weren’t teaching their calves how to find wild fish, and so they couldn’t survive on their own. These days, they are limited to 3 feedings a day, starting at 8am. All the humans line up on the beach and listen to the rangers while awaiting the dolphins (they all have names, and we saw mother, daughter and granddaughter). Some special people get picked to hand-feed the dolphins, while trying the evade the hungry fish-stealing pelicans. We were not the chosen people.
The dolphin experience was a nice treat, but the real draw of Shark Bay for us was the dugongs. Relatives of the freshwater manatee (with a forked tail instead of a rounded tail), dugongs are the only true vegetarian marine mammal, eating seagrass all day long. They are actually negatively buoyant, with very heavy bones, so they don’t need to exert any energy while feeding on the bottom. But this means they only have time for one breath each time they surface. While they remain a threatened species, about 20% of the world population resides in Shark Bay. The best way to see them is to jump on a wildlife cruise, so we dutifully followed suit.
The cruise also stopped at a pearl farm, which is a huge industry all the way up to Broome and beyond (and has its own crazy history involving kidnapping aboriginal women and forcing them to dive down to collect pearls, and later a huge migration of asian labor, including the still-best Japanese). We got to see some of the new inventive techniques they use to create unique shapes under the shell (hearts, anchors, dolphins, etc) and imbedding gold and gem stones to be covered in nacre (the white, iridescent coating that makes a pearl a pearl).
Kalbarri National Park
This park has both red rock gorges and rocky ocean coast, making it one of my (Christina’s) very favorite places in Australia. We started inland with a lovely loop hike (imaginatively called The Loop) starting on the rim at Nature’s Window (a large wind-created hole) and followed the trail down into the red and white banded gorge along the Murchison river.
The second part of the park, and its most spectacular in my opinion, it the wild coastline. Even though we’re farther south, the water still has that tropical light blue color, paired with white limestone cliffs or iron-rich sandstone. What is truly stunning about this part of Western Australia is the mix of warm-tropical and cold-water marine life. The west coast of Australia has the only southward flowing current in the southern hemisphere (the currents along South America and Africa both flow north). The Leeuwin current brings down tropical marine species from Southeast Asia, while the cold waters from Antartica bring the nutrient rich water north. They meet here and form a wonderful seascape that mixes coral reefs and bright tropical fish with seaweeds and kelps of the rocky intertidal.
One of the best places to explore was Eagle Gorge Beach, which was a small beach, but had an amazing amount of marine life, from little snails in the tide pools, to a huge crab-eating gull, and the remnants of creatures washed up on the beach (endless shells, urchins, cuttlebones, etc). I could have stayed there for days exploring all the nooks and crannies!
We continued along the coast to other beaches, lookouts and bluffs, each one presenting new and beautiful treasures.
Where ever we went, the whales weren’t far, and today we managed to get a photo!