Shark Bay—A Marine Wonderland
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN AUSTRALIA
SHARK BAY is a large, shallow inlet located at the westernmost point in Australia, some 400 miles [650 km] north of the city of Perth. In 1629, Dutch explorer Francois Pelsaert branded this desert area “a bare and cursed country, devoid of green or grass.” Later visitors recorded their impressions with such names as Hopeless Reach, Useless Inlet, and Disappointment Loop.
Today, though, over 120,000 people flock to Shark Bay annually. So remarkable are the attractions of this remote region that it was placed on the World Heritage List in 1991.*
Meadows Bursting With Life
Pelsaert would have found his grass meadows if he had looked under the water, for Shark Bay contains the largest and most diverse sea-grass meadows in the world, over 1,500 square miles [4,000 sq km] in all. The Wooramel Seagrass Bank alone stretches 80 miles [130 km] along the eastern arm of Shark Bay.
The sea grasses, which are actually flowering plants, support a dizzying array of marine life. Juvenile prawns, tiny fish, and countless other marine creatures inhabit this leafy sanctuary. The sea-grass meadows also provide ample food for some 10,000 resident dugongs, or sea cows. These gentle and inquisitive mammals, which weigh up to 880 pounds [400 kg], quietly graze the abundant underwater pastures, sometimes in herds of over 100. Northern Australia, from Shark Bay in the west to Moreton Bay in the east, may now harbor most of the world’s dugongs.*
True to its name, Shark Bay hosts a large number of sharks of more than a dozen species. They include the fearsome tiger shark and the gigantic but harmless whale shark, the biggest fish in the world. Sharks share these waters with dolphins, exposing the myth that where you find dolphins, you will not find sharks. In fact, researchers have found that about 70 percent of the dolphins in the area bear scars from shark attacks. The bay’s diverse animal life also includes thousands of humpback whales that stop here to rest on their annual migration south and a similar number of turtles that arrive each year to lay eggs on the beaches.
Are They Really Rocks?
In contrast with other parts of Shark Bay, Hamelin Pool, situated at the bay’s southern extremity, appears bleak and lifeless. Because of a high evaporation rate, these tepid shallows are twice as salty as normal seawater. What appear to be dull-gray rocks fringe the water’s edge. Closer examination, however, reveals that these “rocks” are actually stromatolites, the product of colonies of one-celled microorganisms called cyanobacteria or blue-green algas. About three billion of them occupy every ten square feet [1 sq m]!
These hardy microbes mix sticky mucus with materials extracted from seawater to form a cement, which they add layer by layer to their rocklike home. The process is exceptionally slow. Indeed, by the time it grows to a height of one foot [30 cm], a stromatolite may be nearly 1,000 years old!
Hamelin Pool contains the most abundant and diverse marine stromatolites in the world. What is more, it is one of the last stromatolite strongholds to be found anywhere.
The Superstars of Shark Bay
The greatest attractions of Shark Bay are the bottlenose dolphins of Monkey Mia, a beach area on the edge of Denham Peninsula. Monkey Mia is one of the few places in the world where wild dolphins regularly approach shore to interact with humans. No one knows for certain when this interaction began.
Some tell of dolphins herding fish into the shallows in the 1950’s—a practice that can still be seen today. People may have taken advantage of this situation to feed and befriend the dolphins. In 1964 a local fisherwoman threw a fish to a lone dolphin splashing around her boat at Monkey Mia. The dolphin, which people called Charlie, returned the next night and took a fish directly from her hand. Soon, Charlie’s friends joined him.
Since then, three generations of dolphins have delighted millions of visitors. They have also delighted biologists, more than 100 of whom from various countries have done research on the animals, making them the most studied dolphins in the world.
These days, dolphins, often with their young, visit Monkey Mia beach most mornings. Crowds of excited visitors await their arrival, but only a few get to share in the feeding. Why? Because park rangers want to ensure that the animals do not become dependent on handouts. Nevertheless, all the people present get a good view of the proceedings. “If only humans could enjoy this intimacy with all of earth’s creatures!” exclaimed one woman.
The Bible reveals that such a yearning reflects God’s original purpose for humans to have all animals in peaceful subjection. (Genesis 1:28) If you love animals, you will be pleased to know that the fulfillment of God’s purpose, although temporarily interrupted by sin, will be fully realized when God’s Kingdom, a heavenly government in the hands of Jesus Christ, rules over the earth.—Matthew 6:9, 10; Revelation 11:15.
Under God’s Kingdom the entire earth will be a sanctuary of natural beauty, vibrant with health and life. Soon places like Shark Bay may have even more to offer their human visitors than they do now.—Psalm 145:16; Isaiah 11:6-9.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization adds to its World Heritage List sites of outstanding cultural or natural value.
Although related to manatees, dugongs are a different species. Manatees have a rounded tail, while dugongs have one that is pointed, like that of a dolphin.
[Maps on page 15]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Aerial view of Monkey Mia beach
[Picture on page 16, 17]
A gentle dugong, or sea cow
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Billions of tiny organisms build stromatolites
[Picture on page 17]
Wild dolphins regularly visit Monkey Mia beach
[Picture Credit Lines on page 15]
© GBRMPA; satellite map: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC
[Picture Credit Line on page 17]
All images, except dugong, supplied courtesy Tourism Western Australia