Shark Bay is a World Heritage Site in the Gascoyne region of Western Australia. Inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1991, the site covers an area of 2,200,902 hectares (5,438,550 acres), of which about 70 per cent are marine waters.
It includes many protected areas and conservation reserves, including Shark Bay Marine Park, Francois Peron National Park, Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve, Zuytdorp Nature Reserve and numerous protected islands. Shark Bay is an area of major zoological importance.
It is home to about 10,000 dugongs (‘sea cows’), around 12.5% of the world’s population, and there are many Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, particularly at Monkey Mia. The dolphins here have been particularly friendly since the 1960s.
The area supports 26 threatened Australian mammal species, over 230 species of bird, and nearly 150 species of reptile. It is an important breeding and nursery ground for fish, crustaceans, and coelenterates.
Shark Bay has the largest known area of sea grass, with sea grass meadows covering over 480,000 hectares (1,200,000 acres) of the bay. It includes the 103,000-hectare (250,000-acre) Wooramel Sea grass Bank, the largest sea grass bank in the world.
Shark Bay also contains the largest number of sea grass species ever recorded in one place; twelve species have been found, with up to nine occurring together in some places. The sea grasses are a vital part of the complex environment of the bay.
Over thousands of years, sediment and shell fragments have accumulated in the sea grasses to form vast expanses of sea grass beds. This has raised the sea floor, making the bay shallower.
Shark Bay was discovered on the 25th of October 1616 by Dutch Captain Dirk Hartog who stepped ashore at Cape Inscription (Dirk Hartog Island) to become the first recorded European to set foot on Australian soil.
An engraved pewter plate was nailed to a wooden post to record his historic visit for posterity. The French followed in Dampiers wake. In 1772 Captain Louis-Francois Saint Alouaran arrived at the northern tip of Dirk Hartog Island (Turtle Bay) and formally claimed the continent for France two years after the British claimed Australia at Botany Bay.
In 1801 a French scientific expedition under Captain Nicholas Baudin aboard the Geographe arrived in Shark Bay. Accompanied by the vessel Naturaliste, Captained by Emmanuel Hamelin with anthropologist Francois Peron aboard, the ships explored and chartered a wide area of Shark Bay. Many landmarks and coastal features carry French names to this day.
Shark Bay provides outstanding examples of processes of biological and geomorphic evolution taking place in a largely unmodified environment. These include the evolution of the Bay’s hydrological system, the hypersaline environment of Hamelin Pool and the biological processes of ongoing speciation, succession and the creation of refugia.
Shark Bay’s sheltered coves and lush sea grass beds are a haven for marine species, including Green Turtle and Loggerhead Turtle (both Endangered, and the property provides one of Australia’s most important nesting areas for this second species).
Shark Bay is one of the world’s most significant and secure strongholds for the protection of Dugong, with a population of around 11,000. Increasing numbers of Humpback Whales and Southern Right Whales use Shark Bay as a migratory staging post, and a famous population of Bottlenose Dolphin lives in the Bay.