Australian Adventure (July 16 - 17, 2013)

40 Days Down Under (Day 33 & 34)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013
100 kilometers of white and blue come into view from the car.

A little bit of heaven (look closely at the photo).

You'd likely never know that the white wasn't sand unless you ventured further, stopped the car, and looked closely.

Instead you are witnessing an abundance of cockle shells.  Shell Beach is located past the 26th parallel in Western Australia and is located in the UNESCO World Heritage listed area called Shark Bay.

Located at the most western part of Australia, Shark Bay has three noteworthy features: rich sea-grass beds which help support a large dugong (sea cow) population, stromatolites, and provides a home to five species of endangered mammals...the boodie, rufous hare-wallaby, banded hare-wallaby, the Shark Bay mouse, and the western barred bandicoot.


Shell Beach stretches for more than 100 kilometers with Coquina shells between seven and ten meters deep.

Once upon a time, the cockle shells were cut into bricks for buildings in nearby Denham. The cockle shells naturally get compacted by rainwater. Rainwater releases the cockle shell's own calcium carbonate, and it sort of creates a cement. After a while, a very dense brick of shell would be created. It is now illegal to remove any of the shells from Shell Beach. Touching and swimming are allowed, but - be warned - the water is metahaline (1.5x the normal salt content).

Shell Beach shell bricks

Close up of shell bricks of Shell Beach

Also in Shark Bay is the wonderful Eagle Bluff overlook. This overlook made me exhale a "wow". A long boardwalk sits atop shallow waters teeming with life. We saw several rays. Depending on the time of year, sharks, turtles, and dugongs can also be seen there. It's unbelievably clear.

Look carefully for the ray

Eagle Bluff got its name from the sea eagles that congregate on the island visible from the boardwalk. At one time, the guano (bird poop) on that island was worth a fortune as fertilizer.

We made it into Denham and opted to visit the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery & Visitor Center. The center had a bunch of information on the biodiversity, history, landscapes, bays, islands, lagoons, and animals of the area. It had very comprehensive, easy-to-understand exhibits and some interesting displays. It's a great way to get out of the drizzle.

Skies cleared, we felt captivated to walk around Little Lagoon before heading to our overnight at the Denham Seaside Tourist Village.

Something about Australia compels me to get out and smell the fresh air. Maybe it's just because there is so much fresh air.

After checking in, we went for a walk on the sandy beach by our campground and stumbled upon the remains of a shark. The wind started picking up, so we opted to go back to the car.

Storm on the way
There was a huge wind storm (which was honestly a source of amusement for us). We found it entertaining to watch the couple behind us try to manage outdoor cooking and hanging their clothes to dry in a crazy wind storm.

See the shirt whipping on the line?

They tried creating blockades so their food would keep cooking. I don't feel like our amusement was cruel, because there was an official camp kitchen only steps away. We never could figure out why they didn't go use it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013
We woke up at sunrise today so we could make it to Monkey Mia for the early dolphin feeding. We wound up staying for two dolphin feedings.

Since the early 1960s, a group of wild Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins have been visiting Monkey Mia of their accord. There are currently five female dolphins that are allowed to and will accept a small amount of fish from people. It's an interesting phenomenon as these wild dolphins are contradicting natural behaviors by eating dead fish.

Yet the dolphins arrive like clockwork just about every day. Some of the dolphins come back later in the morning for a second or third feeding.

One of the young females is showing interest in participating, so they may have six willing, mature female dolphins participating soon.

On the day we were there, about 15 dolphins were around for the first interaction. Several were hunting fish by the pier before the interaction started.

Only three of the mature females were fed, but the rest seemed to be socially fond of the display.

Oddly, some males were hanging around during the first feeding. This was, according to the guides, a rare occurrence.

The later morning feeding had only four dolphins around, and only one of these was a mature female. Nicky, the oldest of the female dolphins named for the nick in her fin, was the only one to be fed during this dolphin interaction. She was doing a pretty good job of ignoring the hungry pleas of her eight-month-old calf, Missile, so they shortened the interaction by about five minutes so that she would be encouraged to go into deeper waters to allow Missile to nurse.

Nicky is over 30 years old and has spent her entire life coming to the shallows for the interactions. She was actually fed as a baby. Regulations have been tightened in recent years as to when dolphin feedings can occur. At one time, the rules were far more lax, and Nicky had started ignoring her fishing instincts and was relying too much on human feedings. She would just stay in the shallows all day. This was to the detriment of several babies that she ignored and didn't nurse as required. Unfortunately, several of Nicky's dolphin babies perished.

She seems to be providing much better care to Missile now though.

The entire thing is rather amazing. The dolphins choosing to interact this way. They are super trusting too. They will actually bring in the newborn calves just a day or two after birth.

Apparently, the dolphins are show-offs. After they catch a fish, which can be a lengthy affair, they will show it off before consuming it.

The pelicans are jealous.

After the second dolphin interaction, a wild emu found its way onto the beach. I guess it wanted to interact with humans too, but the rangers advised against it and told people to back away slowly. It was pretty funny.

Our next stop was at the Ocean Park Aquarium. This aquarium features much of the marine life you'd experience at Shark Bay (minus any mammals).

They had a three flipper loggerhead turtle, a few squid, and some stingrays.

They had a lot of poisonous and venomous fish...and some regular fish.

And, of course, they had sea snakes and sharks. (It is the creatures of Shark Bay afterall.)

They do a great job with explaining the various creatures. My favorite fact...the clownfish (Nemo from Finding Nemo) is always born male, but they are hermaphrodites. When the female of the group dies, the largest male will change into the new female. Once they change genders, they can't change back. So, after Nemo's mom died, Nemo's dad should have become Nemo's mom.

Other things I found interesting about the clownfish. If you give a piece of food to the clownfish, they won't consume it. They immediately retrieve it and bring it down to their sea anemone to consume. They will eat any scraps the anemone doesn't finish. Also, the protein of the clownfish is sugar-based which is probably why it doesn't get stung by the anemone. The anemone doesn't see the clownfish as a threat or food.

Back on our path, we saw a wild echidna cross the road.

Then we were off to see the Hamelin Pool Stromatolites. The stromatolites (in the simplest terms I can think of) are colonies of algae that create hard deposits and are among the most ancient organisms on the planet. They lived back in a time when there was very little oxygen in the air. Since they consume carbon dioxide, they had no trouble breathing, and, since they underwent photosynthesis, it is said that they changed the earth as we know it to have about 20% oxygen content in the air. So the stromatolites are thought to be responsible for spearheading the evolution of oxygen-breathers.

The stromatolites haven't really evolved themselves and are virtually extinct. They only now exist in hypersaline waters (2x normal salt content) where very few other organisms can survive.

Our overnight this evening was the Hamelin Pool Caravan Park. They have a nice store/cafe at the office, and I got a yummy honeycomb milkshake. Kris got a cappuccino.

From the caravan park, there is a really nice walk to the stromatolites. We decided to go back for another look. On the walk, we went through the Hamelin Pool Shell Rock Quarry. This is the one area where it is legal to make the coquina shell blocks. They still quarry some to restore buildings that were built with them before restrictions were set into place.

We enjoyed a copper sunset over the ocean and fields before calling it a night.

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