Defined by stunning coastal landscapes and shimmering waterworlds, and home to prolific and endangered marine life, the Shark Bay region of Western Australia will leave you awestruck. Tick off these ten fabulous things to see and do.
UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shark Bay, or Gutharraguda (meaning ‘two waters’ to the Malgana First People), is a nature lover’s paradise.
About the size of Brisbane, the area is located smack bang between the coastal towns of Geraldton and Carnarvon on Western Australia’s Coral Coast. Two vast, protected stretches of water — Hamelin Pool and the Shark Bay Marine Park — are hugged by two forks of land — Francois Peron National Park and Edel Land National Park/Dirk Hartog Island. Comprising the small beach enclave of Monkey Mia and the sleepy town of Denham (where most visitors to the region stay), the 850-kilometre trip from Perth will deliver you a sunny spot with a laid-back ambience.
Intersperse lazy days with unique experiences. Visit the longest island in WA and stand on the most westerly point of mainland Australia. Spot dugongs grazing on fields of seagrass, and hand feed personable dolphins. Catch a glimpse of life as it was over three billion years ago, and walk on the only shell covered beach of its kind in Australia. And the list goes on.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Shark Bay.
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1. Meet the Monkey Mia dolphins
Nicky, Fin, and other bottlenose dolphins visit the shallow waters of Monkey Mia most mornings for a feed of fish from landlubbing locals and visitors. Delineated by a roped-off area, the aquatic mammals’ first three visits of the day are known as the ‘Dolphin Experience’. The dolphins come so close that they seem like friendly pets, rather than wild animals. If you’re chosen by the ranger to help feed them, you feel like the luckiest person on earth.
Dolphins often swim under the jetty and alongside the beach at other times of the day. So, grab a casual lunch at The Boughshed Restaurant and dolphin-spot to your heart’s content.
2. See more amazing marine life
Dolphins, dugongs, turtles, sharks, and rays: the elevated boardwalk at Eagle Bluff Lookout, situated south of Denham, gives you a great chance to see them all. A palette of bluey green hues swirl across the dense seagrass meadows below, where the shy, endangered dugong and green turtles feed. Sharks and rays are also frequent visitors; keep your eyes peeled or join a sunset wildlife cruise with Perfect Nature Cruises. You can get even closer to the action at nearby Ocean Park Aquarium by diving with sharks (no cages!) in the lagoon.
3. Snap the red cliffs at Cape Peron
A scenic day trip to Francois Peron National Park, named after the early French anthropologist, is a must-do. Self-drive in a 4WD vehicle or join a tour with Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Adventures. One undulating sandy track takes you northwards, hugging the coast and detouring into a variety of picturesque bays.
Get the camera out at Cape Peron — the park’s northern tip — where imposing red cliffs drop twenty metres into turquoise waters. This is the perfect spot for ‘lunch with a view’ in the ready built shelter. Afterwards, a one-hour walk along the scenic Wanamalu Trail (or a five-minute drive) will lead you to Skipjack Point, where two elevated viewing platforms overlook the ocean. We saw rays and a mum and baby dolphin glide by.
4. Marvel at the stromatolites
Half submerged in water, the ancient living fossils of Hamelin Pool — known as stromatolites — are world famous. Sand bars restrict tidal movement in Hamelin Pool Nature Reserve, making the water super salty — something its minute inhabitants love. The layered stromatolite ‘stones’, two or three thousand years old, are actually teeming with bacteria. Their excretions and the surrounding sand sediment form into the distinctive layered mounds and release vital oxygen into our environment. Cyclone Seroja damaged the viewing boardwalk, but you can still see the ancient formations from the beach.
5. Walk on cockle shells
Put your sunnies on at Shell Beach, where a mass of shimmering cockles’ shells, ten metres in depth and at least seventeen kilometres long, sparkle. Safe from predators (who dislike the briny waters), the cockles proliferate in this location. Historically the shells were made into limestone blocks for construction, and you can see original cuttings at the old shell quarry near the stromatolites. Today the blocks are used only for the restoration of original buildings (a good example is The Old Pearler Restaurant in Denham).
6. Explore the Denham foreshore
Denham (population: 800) started life as a pearling camp, and information boards on the foreshore reveal how the streets were once paved with pearl shell. Marvel at Dirk Hartog’s 1616 sea voyage in the wooden-hulled Eendracht — depicted by a sculpture titled Union — and pause for reflection at the poignant memorial to the HMAS Sydney II, which sunk off the coast in 1941. Six hundred and forty five men died and the wreck remains at the bottom of the ocean.
The two-kilometre foreshore strip has a smattering of stores selling essentials and unique local offerings. Browse the home-made pottery at The Little Shop, where potter Mehalah can frequently be found at her wheel (in between brewing what she says is the best coffee in town!). You’ll want to linger at Blue Lagoon Pearls, which showcases exquisite pearl jewellery. Those keen to see where the magic happens can do a morning tour of Blue Lagoon’s pearl farm.
7. Feast on the freshest seafood
With boats offloading fresh fish at the jetty in Denham, there’s no shortage of opportunities to enjoy the catch of the day. If you’re self-catering, head to The Shark Bay Fish Factory on Dampier Road for a variety of reasonably priced offerings. Alternatively, leave the preparation to the professionals and indulge in ‘fresh-caught-off-the-jetty’ fish and chips at the Shark Bay Hotel (served with a ripper view, and best enjoyed with a coldie). The place for a seafood dinner is The Old Pearler Restaurant. Seating is limited, so book early.
8. Go west as far as you can
Those with an adventurous spirit, and the driving skills to match, can head out to Steep Point in Edel Landing National Park — as far west as you can go on the Aussie mainland. A 4WD is essential and the drive from Denham will take you about three hours. The single car track consists of shale corrugations, rollercoasting sand dunes, and scrubby terrain. If you’re not confident of doing the driving, hitch a ride with Shark Bay 4WD Tours.
Named after a Dutch trading ship wrecked here in the 1700s, the two-hundred-metre-high Zuytdorp Cliffs stretch for kilometres. Their limestone platforms are home to the Thunder Bay Blowholes; stand too close and you’ll get soaked as a torrent of sea water erupts from holes in the rock. The bellowing blast can reach five metres skyward.
You’re nearly there when you get to the aptly named Shelter Bay. Overlooking Dirk Hartog Island, this tranquil area has several camping spots (which must be booked online in advance). A few kilometres on, the marker at Steep Point is perfect for a selfie. You may spot whales from July to November.
9. Visit Dirk Hartog Island
Dirk Hartog Island is the longest, and one of the most remote islands in Western Australia. The easiest way to get there is to head out on a day cruise with Island Life Adventures. Enjoy lunch at the Cape Inscription Bar and Café, before an optional 4WD tour gives you a taste of the rugged and isolated natural beauty of the island.
To see the pewter marker of Dirk Hartog’s 17th-century landing, you’ll need to stay longer. Dirk Hartog Island Eco Lodge offers accommodation packages, or you can drive onto the barge at Shelter Bay and wilderness camp at one of nine national park sites on the island. With the Lodge owners being Dirk’s only permanent residents, it will feel like you have the place pretty much to yourself.
10. Have a splash
There’s no shortage of ways to get wet in Shark Bay. Enjoy a dip at the Denham swimming area and pontoon on the foreshore, or head out to Little Lagoon. A 1.4-kilometre beach curls around the tranquil body of water, making it the perfect spot for a swim, paddle, or stroll. You can also toss in a line.
Turn up the heat at the famous artesian hot tub at the pioneering pastoral-era Peron Homestead in Francois Peron National Park. At 40 degrees centigrade, you might not be in for long, but it makes for a dip with a difference!
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Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Shark Bay? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Tourism Western Australia. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Maureen Hunter is a freelance writer and confirmed nomad, travelling Australia caravan-style and soaking up wondrous sights as she goes. In between bouts of exploration, Maureen is happiest relaxing with her partner Brett, spending time with family, or diving into a good book.