AUSTRALIA’S COASTAL WILDERNESS: 10 GEMS OF AUSTRALIA’S WEST COAST
Dinosaur footprints, a staircase to the moon and legendary shipwrecks are findings amidst a trove of unexpected delights in one of the most remote regions on earth.
Steeped in history and fringed by the Indian Ocean, the west coast is a place of otherworldly landscapes, stunning bays and fascinating wildlife. From the extraordinary marine biodiversity of Ningaloo Reef to the living stromatolites of Hamelin Pool that hold the key to the origin of life, we share a list of ten iconic gems of Western Australia’s coastline. Some of these remote shores are visited by Coral Expeditions and some which may yet to be explored by our small ships.
Sail away on an expedition voyage to remote archipelagos, offshore coral reefs and remote coastlines that few have the opportunity to visit.
1. ANCIENT INDIGENOUS HISTORY IN THE BURRUP PENINSULA
The Burrup Peninsula is home to Murujuga National Park, a name simultaneously reflective of a local language and the long indigenous history held in the petroglyphs scored into its distinctively hard granophyre rocks. This is a unique continuous living culture surviving from antiquity, long past the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge, and is said to be home to an estimated 1 million works of Aboriginal rock art.
Aboriginal people used these islands as their home when the sea levels were considerably lower, bearing witness to the rising and falling water levels as the world went through different glacial phases. During the last ice age (between 30,000 and 18,000 years ago), the coastline was some 160kms further away and Murujuga artists’ engravings show a number of animals that are now extinct, such as thylacines and a flat-tailed species of kangaroo, a testament to the changing environment.
There is a strong push for a World Heritage Listing of Murujuga, one of the most significant concentrations for human artistic creativity on the planet recording millennia of human responses to the sustainable use of this productive landscape.
2. VIBRANT MARINE LIFE AT THE ROWLEY SHOALS
The Rowley Shoals is a chain of three coral atolls named by Phillip Parker King in 1818 after Captain Rowley who was the first European to record the sighting of the reef in 1800. Straddling the edge of the continental shelf, the coral atolls and lagoons that make up the Rowley Shoals are essentially a wild, kaleidoscopic aquarium.
Once the summit of mountains before slipping beneath the sea during the last Ice Age, abundant marine life and coral diversity make the Rowley Shoals a divers and snorkelers paradise. The ‘Northern Wall’ located on the Mermaid Atoll features a steep drop to 80 metres and is home to every species of reef fish imaginable. Navigate through a 15-metre wide passage at Clerke Reef in the middle of the three atolls to take an exhilarating drift snorkel with reef sharks, purple-lipped clams and iridescent blue starfish.
More recently, researchers have found that Australia’s north-west was once fringed by a giant chain of corals that were a “mirror image” of the modern-day Great Barrier Reef system that emerged an estimated 16 million years ago and eventually grew to about 2,000 kilometres. It slowly sunk around 10 million years ago as the seafloor subsided leaving only a few surviving isolated atolls today.
3. WALK ON WATER AT ROEBUCK BAY
Crystal azure waters lap at iron-rich red sand, while sleepy mangroves soak their black gnarled roots in the salty water of Roebuck Bay. This breathtaking landscape isn’t just beautiful, it’s sacred. The Yawuru people have used this spot for generations to go hunting, fishing and to gather seafood.
During the cooler months witness the Staircase to the Moon, a spectacular natural phenomenon created by the rising of a full moon reflecting off the tidal flats.
Roebuck Bay is an internationally significant wetland and one of the most important feeding grounds for migratory shorebirds in Australia, arguably claiming the greatest diversity of shorebird species on the planet. Charismatic megafauna including the Australian snubfin and humpback dolphins frequent the waters and humpback whales pass through on their annual migration. Flatback turtles nest on the shores and are found in the bay’s waters with other sea turtle species.
It is named after HMS Roebuck, the ship commanded by William Dampier when he explored the coast of north-western Australia in 1699.
4. RETURN TO 1616 AT DIRK HARTOG ISLAND
While it’s widely believed that Portuguese sailors plied the waters of Western Australia as early as the 1500s, the first recorded European landing was made by a captain of the Dutch East India Company in 1616 at what is today known as Dirk Hartog Island.
On October 25, 1616, Dutch sea captain Dirk Hartog and the crew of the wooden-hulled East Indiaman Eendracht crossed a turquoise bay to the northern tip of a long, thin island. After landing their rowing boat on a pristine white beach, the captain and his men scrambled up a high promontory to nail an engraved pewter plate to a post, becoming the first Europeans to leave evidence of landing in what would one day be called Australia.
Dirk Hartog Island was mined by Europeans for guano and used as a base for the pearling industry in the early 1800s. The first pastoral lease was granted for the island in 1869 when up to 26,000 sheep were grazed at any one time. Introduced goats, together with the sheep, trampled their way through the natural habitat. Domestic cats quickly established feral populations, killing and hunting small animals and birds to ecological collapse. Seeking to turn back the clock to the day Hartog arrived, an ambitious conservation programme called Return to 1616 is reinstating the island’s fauna.
See this unique World Heritage site and witness firsthand the Return to 1616, a globally significant ecological restoration project aiming to return the island to how Dirk Hartog discovered it 400 years ago before the arrival of the Dutch explorer after which it’s named.
5. RICH MARITIME HERITAGE AT THE MONTEBELLO ISLANDS
The Montebello Islands off Karratha are a labyrinth of waterways that twist and wind through 170 islands and which are important bird nesting habitats. Only accessible by water, these islands and islets are laden with exceptional marine diversity and human history.
An archipelago some 100km offshore, the Montebellos have a dark past having been the site of British nuclear testing six decades ago. What is ironic is that that same remoteness that made it appealing for all the wrong reasons is the islands’ greatest drawcard today.
It’s an incredible location that seems desolate on land yet is amazingly rich underwater, and best of all, the wildlife has recovered from nuclear testing.
Look for the endangered rufous hare-wallaby, a small macropod once widely distributed across Western Australia. The mala, as it is known in the Anangu language, is an important ancestral being to Aboriginal groups telling people how to care for Country and each other. Today, mala survive only on one island free of introduced predators – Trimouille.
6. SWIM WITH GENTLE GIANTS OFF NINGALOO REEF
At Ningaloo, too, the treasures are concealed beneath the sea. Here, the world’s largest fish appear on their annual migration.
Despite their incredible size, whale sharks are gentle giants from another age; plankton-eaters that glide past watching humans without a second look. With a flick of their two-metre tails, they are gone, yet an underwater encounter with something so big, awe-inspiring and undoubtedly majestic leaves an indelible impression.
Enshrined on the World Heritage List since 2011 for its outstanding natural beauty and biological diversity, the crystalline waters harbour the world’s largest fringing reef where these marine creatures reliably congregate around April, appearing from out of the deep blue to feed on clouds of plankton attracted by spawning coral along this fringing reef. They stay until August, sharing the aquatic habitat with manta rays, nesting turtles, dugongs, hundreds of species of coral fish and, from June to November, humpback whales.
7. TRACK DINOSAURS ON THE DAMPIER PENINSULA
The West Kimberley is a vast area of dramatic and relatively undisturbed landscapes that holds significant biological richness and provides important geological and fossil evidence of Australia’s evolutionary history. For your chance to go back in time to 130 million years ago when the Australian landmass was separating from Gondwana, the supercontinent that encompassed Antarctica, India, South America and Africa; look no further than a visit to the red sandstone cliffs of Gantheaume Point to seek footprints of dinosaurs that once roamed in this region. It is here that theropod dinosaur footprints can be seen at low tide, a remnant from the Cretaceous period.
These dinosaur tracks were made as creatures stomped through, what was then, a vast ancient river plain that opened into a wide belt of tidal deltas, brackish lagoons and estuaries crisscrossed by channels and creeks. Cycad fossils found in the same platforms as the dinosaur tracks offer clues to the ancient plants that existed then.
Against this evolutionary backdrop is further woven a remarkable account of Aboriginal occupation spanning the course of more than 40,000 years and the story of European exploration and settlement, from William Dampier’s landing at Karrakatta Bay to the development of rich and vibrant pastoral and pearling industries that continue today.
8. BIRDING ACROSS THE PILBARA COAST AND ISLANDS
The Pilbara coast was one of the first parts of Australia discovered by Europeans and is the site of the earliest references to Australian birds by early English navigators. The coastline and islands, including the Exmouth Gulf, are important habitats for many shorebird and seabird species.
Some are passers-by; migratory shorebirds who seek sandy spits and sandbars, rocky shores, sandy beaches, salt marshes, the intertidal flats and mangroves. These species will feed and rest in the spring and summer ahead, after coming down from the northern hemisphere to avoid winter.
Some will make a 30,000km round trip along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. The bar-tailed godwit comes all the way from northern Siberia. The eastern curlew breeds in Russia and north-east China.
Look out for seabirds such as shearwaters and bridled, Caspian, roseate, crested, common, little and fairy terns who nest safely on the islands. And for the residents such as beach stone-curlews, red-capped plovers, and sooty and pied oystercatchers; these islands provide all they need.
9. THE STROMATOLITES OF HAMELIN POOL
Living fossils in this remote bay provide a glimpse of what Earth might have looked 3.5 billion years ago. For geologists, Hamelin Pool on the Shark Bay coastline is a wonder: it’s a living example of how the earth might have looked like nearly four billion years ago. Stromatolites are the earliest known life forms on earth and are microbial reefs created by a single-celled organism called cyanobacteria.
Previously known as blue-green algae, cyanobacteria came into existence some 3500 million years ago, well before the existence of any other complex life form predating plants by a couple of billion years. The bacteria provided the earth with most of the oxygen in the atmosphere necessary for supporting subsequent life forms.
Happened upon by oil surveyors in 1956, these living fossils remain extremely rare, known to exist in only a small handful of places in the entire world. Hamelin Pool contains the most abundant and diverse collection of living stromatolites, due to the hypersaline water (twice the salinity of normal seawater) that allows the cyanobacteria to thrive and keeps predators at bay.
Thankfully, the Hamelin Pool stromatolites are also the easiest to observe, thanks to the clear, shallow water and boardwalk that has been built out into the water allowing visitors to see the ancient formations without disturbing their habitat.
10. BATAVIA SHIPWRECK AT THE HOUTMAN ABROLHOS ISLANDS
Comprising 122 islands, the Houtman Abrolhos archipelago is situated some 60 kilometres off the Geraldton Coast on a reef system believed to have been formed 120,000 years ago. For scuba divers and snorkelers, it’s a paradise of pristine reefs and crystal-clear blue waters where playful sea lions are known to swim alongside people.
The Batavia shipwreck lies in four to six metres of clear waters and has been voted the number one dive spot in Western Australia. The shipwreck and bloody aftermath of the Dutch merchant vessel, Batavia is a fascinating tale of maritime treachery, murder and heroism unparalleled in Australian maritime history.
Sections of the ship’s hull have been reconstructed and are on display with other artefacts at the Western Australian Maritime Museum, illustrating 17th Century shipbuilding techniques.