When you visit a place called ‘Shark Bay,’ you expect sharks. Especially if it’s on the west coast of Australia.
This is the part where you think I’m going to say “that’s a common misconception, there aren’t any sharks in Shark Bay.”
Well that would be a lie. There totally are sharks and here is proof:
When I was a kid this commercial aired on TV for Indiana Beach. It featured a cartoon crow singing the questionable though iconic jingle, “There’s more than corn in Indiana, there’s Indiana Beee-eeeach.”
This jingle can easily be adapted to shatter stereotypes around the world, but it comes to mind when I talk about Shark Bay.
Yes, there are sharks, but—much like corn in Indiana—that’s not all there is to Shark Bay.
It’s the most westerly point of Australia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The hypersalinated water in Shark Bay creates unusual conditions that attract diverse marine life, which in turn attracts the common tourist like myself.
I don’t think I fully appreciated the geological significance of Shark Bay, but I sure appreciated the heck out of its beauty. Here’s what you can expect to see along the stunning World Heritage Drive along Shark Bay.
Hamelin Pool Stromatolites
Stromatolites are often called ‘living fossils,’ formed by layers of cyanobacteria until they become hard, rock-like domes. Shark Bay’s stromatolites stand out because they’re mostly intact, untouched by other marine organisms that can damage them over time.
High levels of salination in Hamelin Pool make it impossible for most other life forms to survive, making these stromatolites an exceptionally good modern example of Proterozoic lifeforms—some of Earth’s earliest living things.
And that concludes today’s science lesson.
I have to admit that I was not exactly blown away by the stromatolites and mainly stopped because it felt like the right thing to do.
But we did see a really cute baby lizard, so there’s that.
The Shark Bay tourist brochure claims that Shell Beach is one of only two beaches in the world made up entirely of shells. What they do not do is tell you where the other one is. I couldn’t move forward with my life until I had the answer, so I turned to Google.
All I found were lists of beaches with good-looking shells. I wasn’t used to Google not giving me what I needed, so I called the Shark Beach Visitors Centre. Much to my relief, they knew the answer: the other Shell Beach is in Guyana.
I can’t speak for Guyana, but WA’s Shell Beach is pretty cool. It’s made up of trillions of tiny white cockle shells, with not a speck of sand to be seen.
There are two main towns in Shark Bay: Monkey Mia and Denham. We stayed at a caravan park in Denham within an easy drive of most points of interest. We walked along the waterfront and had a beer at the most westerly pub in Australia, the Shark Bay Hotel. Jared opted for his first and last Swan. (Verdict: “This is a terrible beer.”)
There are a few lookouts off the road leading to Denham, and we stopped at pretty much all of them because they all looked like THIS:
Francois Peron National Park
Francois Peron is at the tip of the peninsula that juts into Shark Bay, and it’s where we spotted our little shark friend. To get into the heart of the national park you’ll need a high-clearance four wheel drive, and there’s a tyre pressure station at the entrance so you can let your tyres down before hitting the red sand tracks.
We drove straight up to Skipjack Point and followed the 1.5km Wanamalu Walk Trail to Cape Peron. It goes along the top of a cliff and gives you incredible views of the water below. There are several lookouts along the way, and we spotted a small cluster of manta rays.
On top of everything else, Shark Bay has the Wooramel Seagrass Bank, the largest seagrass bank in the world.
And where there’s seagrass, there are dugongs.
I know I said the science lesson was over but this is important: dugongs are not manatees. They’re related, but not the same. One notable difference is in their tails: manatees have a paddle-shaped tail while dugongs’ are fluked.
I had my eyes trained to the water in the hopes of spotting a dugong. It looked like we were out of luck until the very end, when a cube-shaped head emerged from the water.
We watched the dugong for a long time before tearing ourselves away.
Monkey Mia & Dirk Hartog
Two spots we skipped: Monkey Mia and Dirk Hartog. You have probably heard of Monkey Mia, where wild dolphins regularly swim up to interact with humans. As much as I love dolphins, the $12 per person entry fee put us off; the reserve isn’t covered by the WA parks pass.
Dirk Hartog Island is the other ‘finger’ that extends into the bay, and it’s accessible by plane or ferry. It’s isolated and the four wheel driving sounded serious. Based on photos we saw, it was beautiful, but the thought of a ferry and bumping around on 4WD tracks put us off.
So there you have it—there are more than sharks in Shark Bay. But maybe think twice about going for a swim, just to be safe.
Going to Shark Bay?
- Shark Bay is between Carnarvon and Geraldton on the northwest coast of Western Australia.
- The entry fee for Francois Peron National Park is $12 per vehicle per day
- Seriously, do not try to cruise into the national park without a 4WD.
- Monkey Mia Reserve is not included in your WA Parks Pass, and you have to pay the fee to get into the town, even if you’re not going to see the dolphins.
- Shark Bay can be really windy. We stayed at the Shark Bay Caravan park and were pleasantly surprised by its wind protection.