Running wild in the far west
WellBeing|Issue 194
Home to rolling rust-red dunes and an opalescent ocean teeming with colourful underwater characters, Shark Bay is every nature lover’s paradise.
CATHERINE LAWSON

As far west as you can get on Australia’s mainland, in a place so thirsty it has to make its own water, a stunning marine wilderness flourishes. World heritage listed and wild, with overlapping marine and coastal sanctuaries that safeguard 10 per cent of the world’s dugongs, more than 6000 loggerhead and green sea turtles and wild Monkey Mia dolphins, Shark Bay’s credentials are phenomenal.

But what takes your breath away, long before the wildlife encounters begin, are the gin-clear lagoons and opalescent seas that wash over cockle shell beaches and carve shell middens from arcing crimson dunes. By anyone’s imagining this place is remote. It’s hot and dry and incredibly far away, but that’s precisely why I’ve come, to paddle a sea kayak from Denham to Monkey Mia and get as close to Shark Bay’s marine life as I can.

Located 830 kilometres by road from Perth, Denham is a quintessential west coast seaside town: small and welcoming with plenty of caravan park sites and a decent beachfront pub. But it’s what surrounds the town that pulls a crowd: a beach made entirely of seashells deposited 10 metres deep, one of the world’s only ancient stromatolite gardens, and the blissfully faraway Dirk Hartog Island whose first explorer footprints kick-started Australia’s great reveal to the world.

For outdoorsy types, few wildlands rival Shark Bay, with its endless opportunities to explore by boat, sea kayak, on foot and under the sea. But if sand-free sheets and sunset cocktails are more your thing, this place will woo you with artesian hot tub soaks, Indian Ocean sunsets, cultural escapes and dolphin encounters that all connect you deeply with the natural world.

Paddling out

Keen for some sandy-footed solitude, I turn my back on Denham and paddle out to sea, spooking tiny shovel-nosed rays that shoot through the shallows. Snoozy blacktip reef sharks dart away too as my boat’s shadow passes overhead, and I watch it all through two metres of the clearest water on earth.

My kayaking buddy and I paddle boats heavy with four days’ worth of food, water and camping gear, and skirt the tricoloured shores of Francois Peron National Park’s vast, sandy wilderness. Here, campgrounds lure hardy off-roaders with a penchant for clifftop hiking and fishing adventures, but with so much coastline to share, we don’t meet any other explorers.

Instead, it’s the wildlife that outnumbers us: green sea turtles foraging on the seabed and bottlenose dolphins that hunt expertly beneath our boats.

Not surprisingly, for a place called Shark Bay, we encounter biters too. One massive tiger shark rises suddenly, separating our boats off Cape Peron and sending us startled and swiftly paddling to the safety of the shallows.

Monkey Mia dolphins

Despite its name, dolphins are the darlings of Shark Bay and the females that commune at Monkey Mia are world-famous. Back in the 1960s, a local fisherman sharing his catch with the dolphins kick-started an almost-daily ritual off Dolphin Beach. Today, a small pod of wild females create rapturous encounters for those standing ankle-deep in Monkey Mia’s idyllic blue cove.

These feeding sessions are dubiously “wild”, but thrilling nonetheless, strictly controlled by national parks staff and designed to keep the females hungry enough to continue natural foraging. Only five female adults are regularly fed, but with their offspring in tow, you’ll get to see tiny juveniles too.

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