Shark Bay, Western Australia: World Heritage Site

Red sand dunes at Cape Peron
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Shark Bay's name evokes images of a place teeming with man-eating sharks. In fact, Shark Bay on the western coast of Western Australia, a World Heritage site, is more home to dugongs, dolphins, and stromatolites. It is a vast 2.3 million hectares of a fascinating aquatic world, a diver's paradise (where diving is allowed), and a place where you can almost shake hands with the dolphins.

Shark Bay is located on the westernmost point of the Australian continent, 800 to 900 kilometers north of Perth, the capital of Western Australia.

World Heritage Area

On his second voyage to Australia in 1699, the English explorer and pirate, William Dampier, gave Shark Bay its name. It seemed he felt that the area was frequented by sharks, probably mistaking the dolphins for sharks.

The Shark Bay UNESCO World Heritage Area became Western Australia's first world heritage listed area in 1991 because of the unique natural wonders that can be seen there. It is one of two World Heritage areas within Western Australia and one of only 16 Australia wide. There are few places in the world where you can experience marine wonders as you can in Shark Bay. People visit the area to see the vast seagrass beds, turtles, dolphins, manta rays, whales, and unusual dugongs (sea cows). They can encounter this marine life from shore, by snorkeling, or from a boat.

Unusual Marine Life

Bottlenose dolphins abound in Shark Bay. At Monkey Mia, they come close to shore and interact with visitors who wade into the knee-deep water.

Dugongs, aquatic herbivorous animals having forelimbs adapted as flippers and with no hind limbs, can be found in Shark Bay. The Shark Bay population of about 10,000 dugongs is said to be one of the largest in the world.

Stromatolites, calcareous mounds formed of layers of lime-secreting bacteria and trapped sediment are found in great abundance at Hamelin Pool. Stromatolites are representative of lifeforms of some 3500 million years ago and are the earliest fossil evidence of life on Earth. They are shaped like algae and wave around in the daytime during photosynthesis.

Humpback whales use the bay as a staging post in their annual migration. Reduced by past exploitation to 500–800 whales in 1962, the west coast whales are now estimated at 2,000–3,000. You can see whales from August through October.

While sharks are not the main attraction in Shark Bay, if you travel farther north to Ningaloo Reef you can swim with the world's largest sharks, the whale shark.

Visiting Shark Bay

To get to Shark Bay by road, take the Brand Highway to Geraldton and the North West Coastal Highway to Overlander, then turn left to Denham. Going by road from Perth to Shark Bay takes some 10 hours. For a shorter trip, fly to Denham or Monkey Mia.

Once a pearling port, Denham is Shark Bay's main population center. If you plan to stay overnight or for a few days in Denham or Monkey Mia, book well in advance as accommodation may be difficult to come by during holiday periods.

June to October (winter and most of the spring) are good times to visit as the winds are lighter and the daytime temperature is in the mid-20s C (upper 60s F). The summer months can be extremely hot.

While at the Shark Bay area, you can enjoy boating, diving, snorkeling, watching marine life, fishing (outside sanctuary zones), windsurfing, and swimming. There are numerous boat ramps. If going diving, bring your filled scuba tanks and other diving gear.

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