Western Australia: Dolphins, dead ‘roos, and dazzling coastline

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 12/17/2015

 Limestone columns rise from the yellow dunes of Pinnacles in Nambung National Park (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Limestone columns rise from the yellow dunes of Pinnacles in Nambung National Park (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Just 10 days ago I was lazing on the beach in Phuket, Thailand, reflecting on my travels over the past three months in Africa and Asia. The next day I boarded a plane in Bangkok, headed for Perth, Australia.

Ah, Australia! I’d be able to drink tap water without worrying about getting sick. I was also looking forward to renting a car. In Africa and Asia, driving a rental car would have been suicidal for a Westerner.

Decades ago, I’d lived in Australia for about seven months, so I’d visited Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef, Alice Springs, Uluru and Darwin.

This time I wanted to see parts of Australia I’d missed before, so I started in Perth and drove up Indian Ocean Road and Route 60, along the sparsely populated Turquoise and Batavia coasts. The roads in this part of Western Australia are well maintained and there is little traffic other than huge “road trains” of triple-trailer trucks.

Countless turnouts allowed me to observe the astounding desert and coastal landscapes here. The Pinnacles rock formations in Nambung National Park rise out of bright yellow sand dunes. Further north, the natural bridges of Kilbarri National Park rival those of Utah. But in this part of Australia, the red rocks contrast spectacularly with blinding-white sandy beaches and the crystal clear blue-green Indian Ocean. To add to the eye-candy, many of the shrubs of the coastal heath, including hakea and banksia were still blooming, thanks to some late spring rains.

 Natural bridge at Kilbarri National Park, Western Australia (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Natural bridge at Kilbarri National Park, Western Australia (photo by Betsy Herbert)

I was saddened that the only kangaroos I saw on this trip were dead ones; the roadkill was shockingly plentiful. On one 50-kilometer stretch I saw at least 10 dead ‘roos on the side of the road. Almost every car in these parts has a hefty grill protector mounted across its front.

After another 400 kilometers, I crossed the 26th Parallel, which officially marks the boundary of Australia’s Northern Territory. Soon after, I reached Shark Bay, a World Heritage Area, where the world’s largest spread of sea grass provides wonderful habitat for dolphins, dugongs, loggerhead turtles, green sea turtles, tiger sharks, and manta rays, to mention a few well-known megafauna.

Monkey Mia, a beach at Sharks Bay, is renowned for its daily visits from wild bottlenose dolphins. The park rangers there can identify each individual dolphin by the scars and outline of its dorsal fin.

I took a half-day cruise on Shotover, a 60-foot racing catamaran, which is now used for sea life spotting expeditions in Shark Bay. Our boat was accompanied at times by pods of dolphins, most of whom first mate Kate knew by name. We also caught glimpses of dugongs and green sea turtles.

Shark Bay is like a living laboratory where you can view the Earth’s oldest surviving organisms, the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool. Stromatolites are limestone structures resembling meter-wide cow pies. Each is formed over thousands of years by single-celled blue-green algae, which thrive in extremely salty water.

Though they’ve been around for some 3,500 million years, stromatolites still survive at Hamelin Pool only because of the high salinity of the bay here. These conditions are created by Shark Bay’s huge seagrass meadows, which form sand bars and shallow bays where water evaporates quickly in the hot dry climate allowing salt to build up.

No wonder Shark Bay is a World Heritage Area!

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.