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The Recherché Archipelago, known by locals as the Bay of Isles, is an extraordinarily beautiful marine area comprising islands, islets, reefs, shoals, and rocks that make navigating a challenge. With 105 islands and over 1500 islets, Matthew Flinders described the archipelago as “an extensive mass of dangers” when he charted the area in 1802.
Recherché Archipelago winds into the Southern Ocean eastwards from the port of Esperance. It comprises more than 100 low-lying, sparsely vegetated islands, as well as many hundreds of largely submerged reefs and islets. Known as the Bay of Isles, the area is renowned for its pristine environment, crystal clear waters and expansive white sand beaches.
The islands that make up the Recherché Archipelago are an untouched haven for wildlife serving as vital refuges for many mammals, reptiles and birds now scarce or extinct on the mainland.
The area is a biodiversity hotspot with a large number of species that are native to the region. This is partly due to the Leeuwin current that flows in an easterly direction, warming the cold seas to over 20 °C (68 °F) in summer.
Migratory seabirds, waders and shorebirds are widespread across the region, and its islands are visited by New Zealand fur seals and Australian sea lions, and snakes and lizards also found on several islands. Some have small marsupials including bandicoots and tammar wallabies, others have sea lion and penguin colonies. Cape Barren geese, as well as small populations of bush rats, are common on the islands. Sea eagles can be spotted soaring overhead with an impressive wingspan of up to two metres, and Southern Wright and humpback whales can be seen migrating through the area in winter and spring.
The surrounding water is famously clear due to very low levels of dissolved nutrients caused by a combination of factors, including oceanic current patterns and limited runoff from the land.
While Dutch navigator, Francois Thijssen passed through the area in 1627, it was French explorer, Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, who named the group of islands L’Archipel de la Recherche in 1792 after one of the Rear Admiral’s ships, La Recherche. The nearby port of Esperance is named after the other ship in the same expedition.
Matthew Flinders was the first to explore and chart the islands of the archipelago in 1802 as part of his voyage aboard HMS Investigator.
Sealers and whalers from British colonies on the Australian continent frequented the area since the early 1820s. Australia’s only recorded pirate, Black Jack Anderson, frequented the archipelago in the 1830s. A former whaler, he turned to piracy and wreaked havoc in the area until being murdered by his crew. Middle Island was regarded as the right whale hunting station of the bight in the 1830s and 1840s.
Unsurprisingly, there have been several shipwrecks in the area, the largest of which was the Sanko Harvest in 1991, a bulk carrier that sank to become the second-largest vessel in the world that can be explored underwater.
Evidence of human occupation dating approximately 13,000 years ago occurs on the islands, from a time of lower sea levels when many of the islands were joined to the mainland.
Archaeologists have found ancient artefacts on Salisbury Island, a mighty limestone remnant sitting on a granite dome 60 km (37 mi) offshore that included stone blades, lizard traps, axe heads, grinding stones and granite watering holes.
The 105 islands of the Recherché Archipelago are surrounded by 1,500 more granite outcrops that are known as islets, often characterised by having steep slopes and no beaches, inspiring the local name ‘Bay of Isles’. A large number of islands and islets are submerged, some becoming exposed by tides.
The archipelago’s islands are predominantly considered as being located in either the western group, near Esperance and Woody Island and Cape Le Grand National Park or in the eastern group where Middle Island is most prominent, near Cape Arid National Park.
Part of the area is included in the bioregion described as the ‘Recherché subregion’, which contains Cape Le Grand National Park at its western end, and the Cape Arid National Park at the eastern end. This area is named the Recherché Archipelago Nature Reserve.