Shark Bay Western Australia (Part 1) 24 to 28 February 2007.
9 Mar 2007
On Saturday morning we left the Overlander Road House and headed into Shark Bay. Once you leave the road house and turn left off the North West Costal Road the whole area is called Shark Bay. So significant is the natural beauty here, that in 1991 it earned the prestigious World Heritage Listing. It is one of only a handful of places across the globe to satisfy all four criteria for World Heritage Status, having important evolutionary and biological histories, unique formations and natural habitats where threatened species survive. Shark Bay has over 1,250 miles of shoreline with pristine beaches, turquoise waters and rust red sand dunes and an abundance of wildlife. There are over 230 species of birds which is almost 35% of the Australian bird population, more than 100 species of reptiles and thank goodness we saw very little of them. There are 18 different land mammals, including many that are being re-introduced back into the area through project Eden, and fish galore including the famous dolphins.
Our first stopping place was Shell Beach. This is a unique stretch of coastline made up of millions of tiny shells. Scientists are puzzled as to why the live animals grow so rapidly and profusely to discard their shells, the shell build up is up to 25 to 30 feet deep and stretches for 69 miles. All the shells are from the Cardiid Cockles and they have been drifting in for over 4,000 years.
After a walk on the beach we returned to the van and set off for our next destination, Monkey Mia. On our first trip to Australia we had seen pictures of people feeding the dolphins on the beach here and had put it on our wish list of places to visit. Western Australia's famous wild dolphins appear regularly at Monkey Mia beach to interact with the visitors.
We arrived at the resort which caters for all kinds of travellers from luxury beach front units, quality backpacker accommodation and a caravan and camping ground with powered sites. Our site was close to the beach area and once we found it we were soon set up and having lunch. Then it was off to explore all the resort had to offer, we had a walk along the beach passed the swimming areas to the dolphin interaction area, but no dolphins were in view. Although the dolphins can and do come to the beach at any part of the day the best time to ensure you do see them is in the morning when they are given their three feeds.
As there were no dolphins about we went into the visitors information centre were we could find out the history of the dolphins at Monkey Mia, a section about the Dugongs who live in the restricted Access Dugong Management Area. I had never heard of these creatures before so it was interesting learning about them. They are very shy creatures, they feed on sea-grass and as Shark Bay has the largest areas of sea grass banks in the world, it is home to 10,000 Dugongs representing about 10% of the worlds population. They grow to about 11 feet and weigh about 850 pounds and can live to 70years of age, sailors in the past thought they were 'mermaids' because of their similar tails to the way a mermaid is described. That is where the similarity ends as they have a snout like face with a lot of whiskers; a model is on display in the centre. There is also information about the long association that the Aboriginal People have with the area.
Next door is a small theatre which shows video's of the wild life in the Shark Bay Area as well as other areas around Australia. We saw a couple of these films during our stay. Our next task was to book a wild life cruise for tomorrow to go out and see the Dugongs for ourselves. There are two catamarans that offer sailing cruises; we chose to go on the 'Shotover'. She is 60 foot long and 31 foot wide and was originally built as an ocean racer. She established a reputation as the fastest ocean racer in the southern hemisphere on her maiden voyage, most of her subsequent many ocean racing and passage records are still unbroken. That was not what attracted me to this cruise; it was the $100 warranty of no sea-sickness whilst on a trip, a chance to make some easy money.
As we booked the cruise we noticed there was a star gazing trip to explore the fascinating jewels of Australia's awesome sky's, this was held at 8.30 each evening so we thought that would be interesting. We duly turned up at the appointed time but no one else did, so we returned home, set the alarm for an early start to see the dolphins.
Sunday morning saw us on the beach at 7.30am; the dolphins had beaten us to it. You are allowed to stand in the water up to your ankles whilst the rangers give you a talk for 30 minutes about the dolphins. Whilst this is interesting most people only really have eyes for these lovely creatures that are swimming up and down so close to you that you can almost touch them (that is strictly forbidden). The wild dolphins have been visiting the beach since the early 1960's; at that time you could purchase a bucket of fish and go down to the beach to feed them. Some people did not bother buying fish and just took any old scraps of food that was handy. The scientists, based at Monkey Mia researching dolphin behaviour, noticed the high incidence of mortality in the young dolphins and realised this was due to the fact their mothers were too busy spending time at the beach instead of teaching their young how to hunt for food. So in the 1980's a strict feeding regime was introduced. Only certain adult females receive food, only three feeds a day and an amount that leaves the dolphin still requiring more food so that they will hunt for it. They do not feed before 8am and it is the first three visits to the beach that they are fed, so it can be all over by 11am.
Today three families of dolphins were in the bay and there were three babies with them. One was born in December; Yule on Christmas Day and the last was born in early January. As dolphins only breed every four years we were told it was unusual to have three babies in the bay together. Whilst the mothers swim up and down in front of everyone the babies frolicked about with each other at the back. When it is time to feed the dolphins the public are asked to leave the water and the movement lets the dolphins know to get into position. The rangers call people out at random to give the fish to the dolphins and it is over very quickly. Once the feeding is over the dolphins loose interest and swim away. We had been told that they often come back very quickly so we hung around and sure enough within twenty minutes they were back. Not as many people were about for this feeding session and both Jeff and I were lucky to be asked out.
In the afternoon we set off on our wildlife cruise. We were joined by an Italian film crew who were making a documentary of the area and like the rest of us were hoping to catch a glimpse of the dugongs. We were lucky and saw several but unfortunately not that close to the boat nor did they stay on the surface for very long. In-between sightings the film crew kept us entertained, Marco, the presenter, kept rehearsing his lines over and over yet still got them wrong when the camera rolled. The cruise lasted an extra 30 minutes whilst they completed their filming. So if any of you go to Italy look out to see if we are on the film.
That evening we decided to have another shot at the stargazing, we had enquired earlier about the outing to be told there was not enough staff to run it but had been given a chart of the stars for this evening at 9pm. So armed with this we set off to a dark area of the beach to identify some of the major stars, constellations and planets. We stood there looking at the chart and puzzling what we were looking at, after an argument as to which way was north and neither of us being able to agree we decided to give it up as a bad job.
Monday morning saw us back out on the beach at 7.30, the dolphins arrived at 8am, the see them before we moved on today. I think we both felt it had been a worth while trip and enjoyed the whole experience.