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Shark Bay is Australia’s most westerly point and one of just four West Australian World Heritage Sites. UNESCO recognises Shark Bay for three exceptional natural features. It has the largest and richest sea-grass beds in the world, which in turn attracts a large dugong (also known as sea cows) population. But it is the ‘living fossil’ stromatolites of Hamelin Pool which attract the most attention in these parts. The oldest life forms on earth, they are an estimated 3.7 billion years old.
By comparison, the Indigenous Australians’ 22,000-year occupation of Shark Bay makes them relative newcomers. In 2018, Indigenous Malgana and Nhanda people were granted native title rights, giving them unhindered access to occupy, hunt and fish the red sand country they have roamed for eons. Ancient midden sites have been found in the sand of Peron Peninsula and Dirk Hartog Island.
This island was named after 17th century Dutch sailor Dirk Hartog, who discovered it when the Roaring Forties took his ship Eendracht close to the ‘Southland’ coast while en-route to Batavia (present-day Jakarta) to trade for spices. Hartog stayed long enough to ascertain (incorrectly) the land was uninhabited and of little interest. Nevertheless, he marked his arrival by nailing a pewter dinner plate to a post on the cliff top before resuming course for the Spice Islands.
Hartog thus became the first known European to land on Australia’s west coast and the second to step ashore on New Holland (Australia) after countryman Willem Janszoon. Englishman and natural historian William Dampier followed 83 years later, recording the first detailed botanical drawings of flora and fauna and naming the region after the proliferation of marine life sighted.