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By: Fleur Bainger
Sticking like a two-finger peace sign out the side of WA, is the World Heritage-listed area of Shark Bay.
A delight for nature-lovers, the area is riddled with marine life, from inquisitive dolphins and laid-back dugongs, to fine eating fish and - as the name suggests - 28 shark species. (Fret not though, no fatalities have ever been recorded).
Shark Bay encapsulates the town of Denham, the nearby communities of Monkey Mia and Hamelin Pool, as well as the jaw-droppingly beautiful national parks Francois Peron and Dirk Hartog.
With all that to explore, it’s time to start planning an escape to the westernmost point of Australia – Shark Bay has got it all.
At a glance
|Distance from Perth||822 kilometres, or 9-10 hours' drive to Denham; 25 kilometres more to Monkey Mia|
|Why go?||To see friendly bottlenose dolphins, body roll down red sand dunes, hook fantastic eating fish, put your 4WD through its paces and walk on a beach made entirely of shells.|
|When to go||Apr - May: Balmy days, gentle breeze, locals call this the best time to visit; ideal for swimming, boat cruising, camping, stargazing.
Jun - Sep: Sunny days in the mid-20s, cold nights hovering around 10 degrees and crisp morning winds; suited to kayaking, paddle boarding and hiking; wildflowers bloom from Aug-Oct; whales visit Aug-Sep.
Oct - Mar: High temps, dry, very windy days; perfect for windsurfing and kiteboarding.
|How long to stay||Spending five days to a week will give you enough time to tick everything off. Consider splitting your stay between Denham and Monkey Mia; Denham for day trips and adventure, Monkey Mia for staying-put, relaxation and play.|
|Need to know||
About 55 kilometres from the Shark Bay turn-off is the Billabong Roadhouse - fill your tank here for some of the cheapest fuel in the state. Otherwise, the petrol station at Denham is fairly priced. Expect your phone signal to waver, even Telstra - beyond residential areas it often cuts out entirely. Denham has two small, independent supermarkets and a bakery doing fresh loaves, early breakfast and lunch; Monkey Mia has a mini mart. Denham beach is pet-friendly but pets are not allowed in any national parks in Shark Bay. Dogs must be on leads at all times when in the Monkey Mia Reserve and are excluded from the dolphin interaction zone. Fees apply for entry into many of Shark Bay’s national parks and reserves - and if you're an RAC member, you'll save 50% on national park passes.
|Fast facts||Town population: 946 people in Denham
Indigenous people: Nhanda, Malgana and Yingkarta
|Insider tip||Seek out art studio café, The Little Shop Well Worth a Visit, at the western end of Denham’s main street, Knight Terrace. There’s no name on the white, set-back house, just a red wheelbarrow and sign saying ‘open’. Café tables are adorned with knitting gear and bubble-blowing containers for those who fancy. Stay for a $5 coffee (it comes with a complimentary chocolate), delivered by octogenarian owner and resident potter, Mehalah.|
|Related road trips|
Top things to see and do
See the red dunes of Big Lagoon with an Aboriginal guide
The inundated gypsum claypan known as Big Lagoon is home to Shark Bay’s most vibrant colours. Terracotta dunes meet white sand and crystalline, turquoise water. Local Yamatji-Malgana man, Darren “Capes” Capewell leads cultural kayaking tours across the lagoon, stopping at a seagull nesting site and kangaroo-dug waterholes, before encouraging body-rolls down the dunes. End the Wula Gura Nyinda eco adventure with local mullet on the barbeque. Big Lagoon also has good camping facilities, including raised tent decks.
Visit a remote coffee van
Stop in at Little Lagoon and grab a hot drink from the cute Coffee Mia coffee van. Its outdoor setting of patterned rugs, covered milk crate stools and upbeat tunes is delightfully unexpected. They do espresso, teas, chai, hot chocolate and toasties as well as kayak and paddleboard hire until noon most days. Stonefish lurk in Little Lagoon, so if you want to enjoy the water, wear wading shoes and shuffle to avoid a painful sting.
Gaze over endless water at Eagle Bluff
As far as ocean lookouts go, Eagle Bluff is rather impressive. A steel walking platform edges a cliff, delivering views of aquamarine water edging a small island and salmon-pink sandy bluffs, while the seagrass-rich navy ocean extends to the horizon. It’s 20 kilometres from Denham.
Splurge on a scenic flight
Seeing the dramatic colours of Shark Bay from the air is worth raiding your pockets for. Take a scenic flight with Shark Bay Aviation over the reds, whites and blues of Big Lagoon and Francois Peron National Park, or be wowed by the Zuydorp Cliffs and the southern end of Dirk Hartog Island, or go all out on a trip that wraps in all that, plus Steep Point and Cape Inscription.
See sharks fed at Ocean Park Aquarium
Far from a theme-park experience, education-focused Ocean Park Aquarium is home to open tanks and glassy displays where local sea life such as turtles, sea snakes, stone fish and stingrays are exhibited and rescue creatures are rehabilitated. The main drawcard is the daily shark feeding, which happens at the end of every guided, hour-long tour, though locals also rave about the coffee (the restaurant’s open kebab, with lamb sourced from a local station, is also pretty good). The park is 10 kilometres out of Denham.
Relax aboard a sunset cruise at Monkey Mia
As the sun paints Shark Bay’s skies crimson, where better to watch it than on a glamorous catamaran? Join a sunset cruise and chances are, you’ll also spot the region’s marine life, be it dolphins, dugongs, turtles, sharks or even sea snakes. Day cruises are also available.
Walk along Shell Beach and eyeball the stromatolites
Let’s be honest: visually, Shell Beach has wow-factor, with its 10-metre deep, button-sized white cockle shells stretching for 60 kilometres. Plus, the water in the bay is so hyper-saline, you float. But learn a little about the nearby Hamelin Pool’s famed stromatolites and you’ll have a whole new appreciation for these cauliflower-like, underwater stumps. The still-living stromatolites in the Marine Nature Reserve are estimated to be 3,000 years old. Their predecessors, some 3.5 billion years back, are believed to be responsible for kick-starting life on Earth: when the micro-organisms they’re made up of released oxygen, it created conditions for more complex life forms to evolve. Seen through informed eyes, the stromatolites are pretty amazing. They’re found along a 200-metre boardwalk beside Hamelin Pool Caravan Park.
Watch the dolphins at Monkey Mia
This is the year-round hook that pulls most visitors to Shark Bay. Since the 60’s, wild dolphins have been visiting the shallows at Monkey Mia’s main beach, originally fed by a fisherman’s wife. Now, park rangers offer fish to the cetaceans while providing an informative, conservation-oriented talk to onlookers. Usually, less than a handful of dolphins come to shore around 7:30am, 8:30am and 9:30am, although they may be seen throughout the day; make sure you look beyond the interaction area as you may spot pods fishing in the deep or a mother and calf playing only 20 metres out. We recommend watching the interaction from the jetty, where elevated views are aided by having the sun at your back; beach viewers tend to endure sun-glare and crowding. A Monkey Mia day permit includes the dolphin experience.
Visit Dirk Hartog Island
Take the Steep Point barge across to Dirk Hartog Island - a raw, rugged isle inhabited by a family of five, who run an eco lodge, ocean villa and homestead campground, as well as tours. Get fully cared for, opt for supported camping or properly rough it at any of the island’s ultra-basic national park campsites. Strap in for a self-led 4WD adventure through empty dunes, to blowholes, past secluded beaches and fishing hotspots to Cape Inscription at the isle’s far tip, where Dutch merchant sailor Dirk Hartog marked his arrival more than 400 years ago.
Red emperor, pink snapper, mackerel, squid and more - Shark Bay is fishing heaven. There are numerous spots to throw in a line for recreational fishers, just be sure to check marine protection zones before baiting up. Back in your boat at Denham or Monkey Mia’s ramps (with more options for smaller boats), or alternately, join a charter boat with locals guiding you to top eating fish.
4WD adventure into Francois Peron National Park
Your first stop in the national park is Peron Homestead Precinct (accessible by 2WD). It’s a 1900’s sheep station turned self-exploratory heritage site that’s best known for its spring-fed outdoor hot tub (currently closed due to Covid-19). Funny aside: the homestead’s shearing shed was relocated there from Denham after too many shearers were distracted by the town pub. If you have a 4WD, let down your tyres at the deflating station, then continue on to Big Lagoon and Cape Peron, with both sites equipped with red sand, picnic tables and bush toilets. Watch for marine life from Skipjack Point Lookout or follow the 1.5-kilometre clifftop Wanamalu Walk Trail from Skipjack to Cape Peron.
What to pack
In summer, you can get away with shorts, t-shirts and plenty of sunscreen; autumn and spring are much the same, but pack a jumper for nights. In winter, sunshine gives way to chilly evenings, so if you’re camping, bring plenty of warm bedding and wear layers beneath a heavy jacket and beanie. The wind keeps most mozzies away but bring spray for sandflies.
You’ll need a car to get around Shark Bay - 2WD is fine but a 4WD is necessary to explore Dirk Hartog Island and Francois Peron National Park (although you can reach Peron Homestead Precinct in a 2WD). If you’re basing yourself in Denham or Monkey Mia, everything along the waterfront is walkable. If you fly from Perth, there’s car (and boat) hire available at the airport.
Emus are a constant threat on Shark Bay’s roads, and at low light, kangaroos also emerge, so travel slowly - or not at all - during sundown and dawn. Adhere to local advice on 4WD tracks and make use of the tyre deflating and re-inflating equipment just outside Peron Homestead before you venture into Francois Peron National Park. Read more long distance driving tips.
Need a place to stay in Shark Bay? Members save up to 20%* on accommodation at RAC Monkey Mia Holiday Park.
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Last updated: September 2020