Wild bottlenose dolphins interact with humans here seemingly because they find it interesting and fun—touching, nuzzling, sometimes receiving food but sometimes bringing it to visitors— the best-known natural residents of this U.N. World Heritage Site on Australia’s westernmost coast. Covering 8,500 square miles (22,000 km2), it is half on land, half undersea, with lovely islands, inlets, peninsulas, sand and shell beaches, dunes, and over 185 miles (300 km) of magnificent limestone cliffs overlooking underwater marine reserves in a collection of national parks facing on the Indian Ocean.
Here are rare rufous and banded hare-wallabies, marsupial boodies or burrowing bettongs, western barred bandicoots, and over 230 species of birds, including regent parrots and western yellow robins at their northernmost range limit. Delicate fairy terns balance eggs on bare branches. White-breasted sea eagles nest on cliffs and gray-tailed tattlers scout mudflats. Failure Island is a key breeding area for handsome Caspian terns.
Shark Bay is migratory staging post for humpback and southern right whales and home to 12.5 percent of the world population of dugongs (aka manatees), more than 10,000 of the gentle, homely, nine-foot (2.7-m) marine beasts, world’s only herbivorous marine mammals, believed to have once inspired sailors’ thoughts of mermaids.
Great manta rays up to 7.5 yards (7 m) across weighing up to 2 tons heave out of the water and crash down during breeding season. Endangered green and loggerhead sea turtles haul out to nest on sandy beaches. Whale sharks, largest fish in the world—harmless plankton feeders which can be 60 feet (18 m) long—congregate by the hundreds during March and April full moons.
Support for this rich ecosystem is based in what may be the largest and most species-rich sea grass assemblage in the world—1,853 square miles (4,800 km2), thriving here for the past 5,000 years, domain of more than 320 kinds of fish and uncounted millions of smaller marine organisms.
Ashore, nearly 100 kinds of reptiles and amphibians include burrowing sandhill frogs which fulfill all their water needs underground.
Flowering botanicals appear in spectacular carpets during the long blooming season. Of more than 700 species, 25 are rare or threatened and 184 are at either their northern or southern range limit.
But rarer than all these are ancient inhabitants that are neither plant or animal—odd, domeshaped living rocks known as the Stromatolites of Hamelin Pool, the planet’s oldest residents whose families first appeared 3.5 billion years ago and from which all else evolved. They are still being built here by cyanobacteria, more commonly called blue-green algae, in what is regarded as the most significant assembly of phototropic microbial ecosystems in the world and one of the longest known continuing biological lineages.
Dolphins in Monkey Mia’s shallow waters have been making and receiving friendly overtures from humans since the 1960s. The interchange is mutually voluntary but visitors need to heed rangers’ directives. Studies are under way to determine whether young dolphins raised by mothers fed in the bay do less well than others.
Problems in this western Australian region include pastoral leases which have led to erosion from overgrazing; introduction of feral rabbits, goats, and foxes; commercial fishing, especially bottom trawling which damages marine ecosystems; poaching of rare marine resources; thoughtless tourism and boating which has damaged dugong, turtle, and dolphin populations and habitat; and mining threats.
Shark Bay is some 500 miles (800 km) north of Perth, accessible from there by road or by daily flights through Geraldton. Motel/resort accommodations, also campgrounds, are available at Monkey Mia and Denham. Guided trips set out from both places.
Best times are May–October, but climate is mild and pleasant year-round.
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