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Bordering the most westerly point on the Australian mainland, Shark Bay is one of the most ecologically important regions on the continent. Its warm, shallow waters are rich in fish and sea grasses, which in turn support an extraordinary array of marine mammals, including the world-famous bottlenose dolphins of Monkey Mia. In addition, the bay's gently sloping shores are home to one of the world's few existing colonies of stromatolites 'rock-like mounds formed by algae that may be the oldest living things on Earth' and a beach made entirely of fossilised shells, while further inland, red sand dunes and semiarid scrub shelter marsupials, abundant reptiles and hundreds of species of colourful wildflowers. The international significance of the bay was acknowledged in 1991 when it was declared a World Heritage area by UNESCO.

Shark Bay is shaped like a tilted W, with Dirk Hartog Island forming the upper part of the left-hand arm and the narrow Peron Peninsula neatly dividing the bay into halves. The surrounding land is arid and sparsely inhabited, with the small seaside town of Denham 'Australia's most westerly town' the fishing hamlet turned tourist resort of Monkey Mia and the salt-mining centre of Useless Loop being the region's only sizeable settlements.

Shark Bay Marine Park

The region's most important reserve is Shark Bay Marine Park, which covers 23,000 sq. km (8900 square miles) of ocean and seashore and is a vital refuge for large numbers of sea- and land-based plants and animals. Most significantly, the reserve encompasses the world's largest seagrass meadows, which are home to the greatest number of seagrass species in any one area. These meadows provide sustenance for huge colonies of sea mammals, including approximately 6000 turtles and 10,000 dugongs -around ten percent of the world dugong population. Also known as sea cows, dugongs can grow to 3 m (10 feet) in length and live for up to 70 years. Their nearest ocean-going relatives are the manatees of the Caribbean, though they are also related to elephants.

 

Shark Bay is located where warm tropical waters overlap with more temperate southern ocean; as a result, it harbours an unusual mix of tropical and temperate fish species, including colourful angelfish, butterfly fish and wrasse as well as more muted southern species such as mulloway and tailor. The bay is also home to manta rays and, as its name indicates, sharks, including tiger sharks. Humpback whales and whale sharks swim along the coast during their annual migrations, but seldom enter the bay.

Shark Bay's best-known inhabitants, however, are the bottlenose dolphins that visit the shores of Monkey Mia almost every day to feed and interact with human visitors. These remarkable encounters date from the 1960s when a local woman, Ninni Watts, began feeding dolphins during fishing trips. The dolphins quickly learned to follow Ninni back to Monkey Mia and were soon turning up on a regular basis in search of handouts. Word about the phenomenon spread, attracting growing numbers of curious nature-lovers and marine biologists from all over the world. In the 1970s, a dolphin protection group was set up to safeguard the animals and during the following decade a small visitor centre was opened. The area became a reserve managed by the Department of Conservation and Land Management in the mid 1990s; more recently, a new interpretive centre has been constructed and visitor facilities upgraded.

Today, the feeding and viewing of Monkey Mia's bottlenose dolphins is strictly controlled by rangers to make sure that the animals are neither harmed nor overfed. By limiting the amount of food provided to the dolphins 'strict fines are imposed on anyone caught feeding them elsewhere' park authorities aim to prevent the dolphins becoming dependent on humans.

Shark Bay's abundant marine life is often visible from shores and headlands around the bay, and a wide range of nature-watching tours is now available, including boat trips and flights over the seagrass beds. However, the reserve's treasures are not confined to the open ocean. At Hamelin Pool, you can view the world's largest group of stromatolites. These strange, bulbous forms were created over thousands of years by microscopic creatures called cyanobacteria. Able to survive only in heavily saline water, cyanobacteria secrete a mucus that traps sediment, thereby forming and slowly enlarging the rock-like mounds. The stromatolites of Hamelin Pool are about 3500 years old; however, fossilised versions found in north-west Australia indicate that cyanobacteria existed there around 3.5 billion years ago. That makes these tiny creatures, now found in only a few locations around the world, Earth's earliest known life form.

Near Shell Beach you'll come across another rarity -one of only two beaches in the world made up entirely of fossilised shells. The shells, which are 10 m (33 feet) deep in places, are the remains of cardiid cockles, small shellfish which, like the cyanobacteria, thrive in Shark Bay's salty water. The weight of the shells has compressed the lower layers into sedimentary rock. At different points along the beach, this rock has been quarried and used by local people as building material. You can see structures made of shelly limestone blocks in and around Denham.

 

Francois Peron National Park

Formerly a sheep station, the northern third of the Peron Peninsula was purchased by the Western Australian government and opened as a national park in 1990. Its 52,000 ha (128,500 acres) include scrub, sand dunes and distinctive gypsum claypans known as birridas. Once landlocked saltwater lakes, these pans are now mostly dry, although a couple have been breached by the sea, forming wide, shallow lagoons. The vegetation includes a typical range of arid-country species such as wattles, hakeas, grevilleas and myrtles, as well as the ubiquitous and distinctive Shark Bay daisy creeper, with its purple flowers.

More than 100 species of birds have been recorded here, including fairy wrens, finches, grass wrens and wedgebills. The park's 98 species of reptiles include the bizarre and appropriately named thorny devil, a small lizard covered in prominent spines, which spends most of its time guzzling its daily intake of several thousand ants. Euros and other small wallabies are common, as are numerous species of rodents.

Many of the Peron Peninsula's original animal inhabitants were displaced by species introduced by European settlers such as cats, goats, rabbits and foxes. In an effort to redress this ecological setback, park authorities recently set up Project Eden. This aims to eliminate feral animals and reintroduce several of the now rare and endangered species which once thrived here, such as the red-tailed phascogale, banded hare-wallaby and bilby.

The old sheep-station homestead and its outbuildings are open to the public and, with the aid of informative signs, provide a fascinating insight into the lives of early European settlers. The homestead also features an old hot-water artesian bore, which is still in operation. The water is pumped up from 390 m (1280 feet) below the ground to a specially built hot tub and shallow splash pool. Visitors are free to make use of the tub and pool during their visit.

Conventional vehicles can travel as far as the homestead, but other roads in the national park are suitable only for 4WD vehicles. Campers can pitch a tent at several official sites, some of which occupy idyllic positions on the shores of the bay.

Fishing

Although Shark Bay's status as a marine park means that a range of restrictions apply to fishing (check with the park authorities before you set off), it is still the case that few other destinations in Australia offer the same fascinating mix of angling opportunities in such pristine and strikingly beautiful surroundings.

Even the more accessible waters around Monkey Mia and Denham boast enough snapper, mulloway, trevally, barracuda and cobia to keep anglers happy for days. But the most productive and exciting areas lie further afield, particularly in the shallow inshore waters at the southern end of the bay, where many line-class records, including tailor weighing more than 7 kg (15.4 pounds), have been taken.

The remote headland of Steep Point on the western arm of the bay offers some of the best land-based fishing in the country, with fish as large as marlin, sailfish and sharks being hooked here on a regular basis. There is also consistent action on big Spanish mackerel, shark mackerel, cobia, tuna, trevally and smaller sharks, as well as bottom and midwater species such as mulloway, pink snapper, nor westers, baldchin groper (wrasse) and cod. Nearby, South Passage and Useless Loop, located just inside the bay, are most famous for their amazing runs of big pink snapper, which are taken in numbers by boat fishers and, to a lesser extent, shore and jetty anglers.

Angling opportunities also abound on Dirk Hartog Island. These range from sedately casting a line for abundant sand whiting and flathead on the shallow flats immediately in front of the island's comfortable lodge to the adrenalin-charged pursuit of giant tailor, snapper and Spanish mackerel from the high, wave-battered western cliffs. Offshore, on the many reefs, gravel beds and sand patches, pink snapper are present in extraordinary numbers, along with more tailor, some big bluebone or baldchin groper (wrasse) and seasonal runs of Spanish mackerel, shark mackerel and cobia. Further offshore again, you'll encounter tuna, wahoo, marlin and the occasional sailfish, as well as plenty of the toothsome critters for which Shark Bay was first named.

To the north-west of Shark Bay, Bernier and Dorre islands turn on some superb mackerel fishing at times, and have great, almost untapped potential for marlin, sharks, cobia, wahoo and the like.

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