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Visit Australia’s Shark Bay for Turtles, Dolphins, Whales

September 25, 2008

By David Lukas

By David Lukas

Lonely Planet

Yes it’s true that Western Australia’s Shark Bay has sharks, but don’t let the name scare you away — Shark Bay is one of the world’s great natural wonders. In fact, this World Heritage site is one of only a couple of places in the world that meets every one of the program’s criteria.

Located 500 miles north of the capital city Perth, Shark Bay is a shallow, 8370-square-mile lagoon fabulously rich in marine resources, including the world’s most extensive seagrass beds and countless turtles, dolphins and whales. Here, too, the placid, 660- pound dugongs, aquatic marine mammals, occur in huge numbers, congregating along the shoreline in September to give birth to their calves.

Drawn by crystal-clear waters and 320 days of sunshine, visitors to Shark Bay will have a hard time deciding among many exciting options, such as embarking on a rigorous four-wheel-drive adventure into Francois Peron National Park, setting a hook on a fishing charter, walking on an aboriginal culture tour or taking a scenic flight to see 200-meter-tall red sandstone cliffs towering over the indigo blue sea on the outer peninsula.

Along the shore

Given Shark Bay’s reputation for marine mammals, consider starting your visit with the dolphins that come to the beaches of Monkey Mia each day to nuzzle visitors and receive snacks from rangers. Standing in shallow surf surrounded by curious dolphins is an experience you will never forget.

Afterward, a 20-minute drive west takes you to the village of Denham, where visitors can search for some of the area’s many water birds at Little Lagoon, or journey south to Eagle Bluff to view passing sharks, rays and dugongs from one of two lookout platforms.

Further south at Hamelin Pool, marvel at one of the region’s most significant treasures, a collection of ancient microbial colonies that grow into cauliflowerlike columns at the water’s edge. Known as stromatolites, these unique colonies are living examples of the first life forms that populated Earth 3.5 billion years ago.

Into the bush

Whether you bring your own four-wheel drive or join a four-wheel- drive tour, be prepared for a thrill if you travel the rough, sandy roads northward to the remote lookouts and beaches of Francois Peron National Park. This is a paradise for true wilderness camping or encounters with rare wildlife such as highly endangered western barred bandicoots and boodies. Between August and October, many of the region’s 700 wildflower species also will be in full bloom, creating an unparalleled riot of colors.

On the water

Without a doubt, most visitors to Shark Bay come for the dazzlingly clear waters and abundant sea life. Join one of the many cruises based in Denham and Monkey Mia (details at the Shark Bay Tourist Bureau; 011-61-8 9948-1253) for snorkeling, diving, fishing and scenic tours; or delight in the bay’s calm waters from a sea kayak as you explore countless inlets and beaches (contact the Department of Environment and Conservation; 011-61-8-9948-1208; sharkbayenquiries@dec.wa.gov.au).

Almost anywhere in Shark Bay you are virtually guaranteed to run across one of the greatest concentrations of dugongs, dolphins, whales and sea turtles in the world. Even better, the sea life is easily viewed in clear waters that average only 10 yards deep, and local tour operators know the best places for finding your favorite animals.

If heading underwater is to your liking, check out Surf Point for coral reefs and some of the best snorkeling in the bay, or take home memories of the fantastic assortment of tropical fish that gather around the Gudrun shipwreck. If you go– GETTING THERE: The sprawling Shark Bay region is best reached from Perth, with most visitors heading directly for Denham or the resort at Monkey Mia. Skywest Airlines (www.skywest.com.au) makes several flights a week into the Monkey Mia airport for around $300 (Australian), while Greyhound (www.greyhound.com.au) makes regular stops at Overlander, where a shuttle (Shark Bay Coaches; 011-61-8-9948-1081; www.sharkbaycoaches.com.au/shuttle-bus.htm) transfers you to Denham or Monkey Mia. Another excellent option is to rent your own vehicle, either in Perth or after arriving in Denham. For the best information on planning your trip, contact the Shark Bay Tourist Bureau (011-61-8-9948-1253), the Shark Bay Tourism Association (www.sharkbay.asn.au) or the excellent Department of Environment and Conservation Web site (www.sharkbay.org). — WHERE TO STAY: For accommodations ranging from tent sites ($14 Australian) to beachfront villas ($285 Australian), the Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort (011-61-8-9948-1320; www.monkeymia.com .au) offers the best options. Simple, spacious villas are available for $140-$205 (Australian) in Denham (011-61-8-9948-1264; www .denhamvillas.com). — WHERE TO EAT: For rustic charm and wholesome food, there is no better dining choice than the classic Old Pearler Restaurant (011-61-8-9948- 1373), housed in a delightful and much-photographed building constructed entirely of seashell bricks.

Originally published by David Lukas, Lonely Planet.

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