Shark Bay Western Australia is a wild and rugged UNESCO World Heritage Site that forms the most westerly part of the country.
The name, Shark Bay, conjures images of shark-infested waters and dangerous coastline, and you wouldn’t be wrong in believing that vivid description. While there are plenty of sharks in the bay, there are also plenty more other species of marine life, and this is one of the most diverse marine areas in Western Australia.
This remote, yet spectacular part of WA isn’t quick to get to, but it is worth the hours spent in the car driving here because at Shark Bay you can find not only sharks, but dolphins, turtles and dugongs, ancient stromatolites that are thousands of years old, and entire beaches made of shells.
It’s a unique part of Australia, and to inspire your trip, here’s my guide to visiting Shark Bay WA!
A Brief History of Shark Bay Western Australia
Shark Bay Western Australia forms the most westerly point in mainland Australia, and this prominent peninsula and bay has a fascinating history that’s often overlooked, or simply not known about.
The region is a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage Site, primarily because of Shark Bay’s exceptional natural history. The area has a huge array of wildlife, including endangered species and species unique to either WA or to the bay itself.
The most fascinating part of the listing is the Stromatolites. These ancient creatures are thought to be one of the earliest examples of simple life on earth, and although the look like rocks, they are in fact formed of simple bacterial cells that can be thousands of years old.
The natural history of Shark Bay is astounding, but the human history equally so. For 22,000 years, local Aboriginal communities have called Shark Bay Western Australia home. The local name for the area is Gutharagudda, and there is evidence across the region of indigenous history, although like everywhere in Australia, this was almost wiped out entirely with the arrival of Europeans.
Shark Bay was actually the second place in Australia to be visited by Europeans, and while colonial history is often seen to have begun in the late 18th century when Captain Cook voyaged along the east coast, as early as 1616 the Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog landed on the west coast.
Almost two hundred years before Sydney was founded, the Dutch were exploring Shark Bay, but it wouldn’t be until the mid 19th century, after the founding of Perth by the British, that colonists eventually began to move north. They did so in small numbers though, and even today the Shark Bay area only has a small population of just over 1000 people, making this a truly remote and sparsely populated part of Western Australia.
How to Travel From Perth to Shark Bay
Shark Bay WA is found to the north of Perth, 750 kilometres from Western Australia’s state capital. It’s a simple enough drive, but it’s a long one. Follow the North West Coastal Highway from Perth, travelling past Geraldton and continuing until you reach the Overlander Roadhouse. Here you turn left and follow the road that heads out to the main peninsular, where you can find the main town of Denham and the resort of Monkey Mia.
From Perth to Shark Bay, it’s a journey time of at least 7 hours. That means that you will want a few days to travel here and to enjoy the area. Many long term travellers will incorporate the journey from Perth to Shark Bay into a wider road trip along the North West Coastal Highway, from Perth to Broome or even further north, from Perth to Darwin.
To the north of Shark Bay, the next major stop on the highway is the city of Carnarvon WA, which is just over 300 kilometres and at least 3 hours of driving away. Karratha is a further 600 kilometres from Carnarvon, while Broome is 800 kilometres from Karratha.
The Best Time of Year to Visit Shark Bay Western Australia
Shark Bay is found far enough north that it enjoys warm weather all through the year. May to September is when you’ll find the coldest weather in this part of the country, but you’ll still be able to enjoy hot, sunny days too. There can be rain in winter, but this is a dry part of the country and it won’t rain often.
The hottest time of year to visit Shark Bay is from December through to February, when it’s the height of summer. It can be scorching hot, and over Christmas and New Year, accommodation can easily sell out. You may prefer to travel in the shoulder seasons, to avoid the worst of the heat and still enjoy great weather.
If you are travelling during summer, over any school holidays, or even just on weekends, then try to book your accommodation in advance, even if you are planning on camping, as there are very limited places available.
Things to do in Shark Bay
Shark Bay is a great place to spend a few days, but you’ll quickly realise that there aren’t too many traditional sights to see as such, but that it’s more about experiencing the outdoors and enjoying nature.
The main town is Denham, where you can find accommodation, a small supermarket and a few pubs and cafes. Along from Denham, you can find Monkey Mia, one of the most famous resorts in Western Australia, where you’ll be able to encounter dolphins close up. Most travellers spend at least two nights in Shark Bay, but if you are looking to relax then you can easily spend more.
One of the best things about Shark Bay is the marine life. While the ominous name might have you staying far away from the water in fear of being eaten alive by great whites or tiger sharks, actually, there are no more sharks here than you’ll find anywhere else in Australia.
What you will find in abundance though, are rare dugongs, friendly pods of dolphins and migratory whales that make their appearance between March and July. You might even be lucky enough to see a whale shark. While you can see some marine mammals from the coast, Shark Bay is also a great place to go diving, snorkelling, boating or kayaking, particularly if you want a closer encounter.
If you really want a close encounter though, then you’ll need to visit Monkey Mia, an iconic resort on the eastern coast of the Shark Bay peninsula. Monkey Mia is hotel, campsite, restaurant and resort, but it’s also home to a scientific research centre that studies the local dolphin population.
This small population of bottlenose dolphins is famous across Western Australia because every morning they make their way right up to the beach by the resort. They’ve been doing this for decades, ever since local fishermen began feeding them, although the researchers today are careful to only provide them with a small proportion of their daily food intake, so as to not make them dependent.
A select number of visitors can feed fish to the dolphins in the shallow water, while local researchers have the opportunity to add to their research and to learn more about the species.
At Monkey Mia, you’ll also find a population of resident emus wandering through the campsites, while you can rent kayaks or canoes, lounge on the beach or enjoy a few drinks at the bar.
If you’re going to stay the night though, try and book in advance, as even the campsite can get full. You have all the onsite facilities you might want, including kitchens, a swimming pool, and outdoor barbecues.
Denham is the main town in Shark Bay, but don’t expect too much, as the resident population numbers just 750 people. It’s home to a harbour, a couple of cafes, restaurants, pubs and a few small supermarkets.
It’s a good place to stock up on fuel and supplies, but you might want to consider spending the night here too, as there are several caravan parks along the coast. You can watch the sunset over the beach, enjoy the quirky pub in the evening, and find out what small-town life in Australia is like.
Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre
The Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre is the main attraction to see in Denham, and the only traditional tourist attraction in the town. This also doubles as the local visitor’s centre, where you can get more information on what to do and here to stay if you need it.
The Discovery Centre has a free to enter gallery, full of fantastic pictures of the area, while the museum itself charges a small entrance fee. In the museum, you can learn more about local history, be it human or natural. You can see why the area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, learn about the indigenous communities that have lived here for thousands of years and learn about the first Europeans to land at Shark Bay.
One of the best things to do in Shark Bay is to visit Shell Beach. Located on the eastern side of the peninsula, before you reach Denham, Shell Beach is quite literally a beach comprised almost entirely of shells.
Few other beaches in the world are quite as striking to see, and you’ll be amazed at how there’s no sand, but just millions, upon millions of small shells stretching for kilometres along the coastline. It’s not exactly a good place for lounging around – let’s face it, shells aren’t exactly comfortable to sit on – but it is a spectacular part of the local scenery.
Eagle Bluff is another great spot to visit in Shark Bay, and it’s found on the western shoreline of the peninsula, have way between Denham and Shell Beach.
There is a spectacular viewing area, offering uninterrupted vistas along the coastline for miles. On a good day, when the visibility is clear, you might be lucky enough to spot dolphins or whales in the water.
One of the best places to visit in Shark Bay WA is Little Lagoon. Found along the road from Denham to Monkey Mia, this is the smaller of two lagoons on the peninsula.
It’s a beautiful spot, and you’ll quickly be drawn in by the perfect, turquoise water. You can stroll around the edge of the lagoon, and you can even take a swim if you want to cool down – there are definitely no sharks in this lagoon.
Around the lagoon, you’ll also find a few barbecue spots, making this a cool spot to relax for a few hours and to do little but take in nature and maybe drink a few cold beers.
Big Lagoon is the larger of the two lagoons in Shark Bay, but compared to Little Lagoon, it sees few visitors. Big Lagoon is found within Francois Peron National Park, to the north of Denham. It’s along the coast and is one of the best camping spots in the area.
It’s remote though, and you will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to be able to access Big Lagoon. You might see dugongs, dolphins and turtles, to name just a few of the aquatic creatures that call by the lagoon.
Francois Peron National Park
Francois Peron National Park covers all of the northern parts of the Shark Bay peninsula, from Denham upwards. It’s the most rugged and dramatic part of Shark Bay, with striking cliffs, turquoise lagoons and deserted beaches.
Few travellers actually make it this far north, and the area’s remoteness is part of its appeal to those who can get here. The main obstacle is the dirt and sand roads, which can only be traversed by four-wheel-drive vehicles. You’ll need to be self-sufficient up here, and know how to drive off-road, as you can easily get bogged.
If you’re looking to escape it all though, then Francois Peron National Park in Shark Bay WA is the place to go!
Peron Heritage Precinct
If you don’t have a four by four, then you can still visit the Peron Heritage Precinct, which is found just within the boundaries of the Francois Peron National Park. This is a lovely piece of heritage, where you can find the preserved remnants of a historic farmstead.
Before it was designated as a national park, this part of Shark Bay was a rural sheep farm, but the land ultimately proved unsuitable for pastoralism. The farmstead was eventually abandoned, but the sheep shearing pens and the home have been turned into a museum.
The Artesian Hot Tub
Also found on the Peron Heritage Precinct, the Artesian Hot Tub is one of Shark Bay’s best things to do. The Artesian Hot Tub is open to the public and free to use, and the hot water is pumped straight from the ground beneath it.
It’s a scorching 40 degrees celsius though, so in the middle of the day, it’s not the best idea to jump in, but come here in the evening and you can cook up dinner on the barbecues before relaxing in the hot tub, underneath the dark night sky.
Stromatolites at Hamelin Pool
At Hamelin Pool, a short detour off the road leading towards the Shark Bay peninsula proper is the area’s most curious natural attraction. Along the coast, a boardwalk leads visitors out over the shallow water, where you can see the ancient living creatures known as Stromatolites.
These can be thousands of years old, and they are thought to be closely related to the first organism that ever evolved on earth. Hamelin Pool is one of the few places where Stromatolites can still be found in the world, and although they don’t exactly offer much in the way of excitement – they just sit there, looking like rocks, after all! – they are a fascinating part of natural history.
Hamelin Pool Telegraph Station
At Hamelin Pool, you can also find another quirky piece of history, at the Telegraph Station.
This old telegraph station was an important route along the coast of Western Australia, connecting Perth with the rest of the state to the north, and it was used from the 19th century onwards.
Dirk Hartog Island
At the northern end of Shark Bay, beyond the peninsula itself, you can find one of the most historically important destinations in Australia. Dirk Hartog Island is remote and wild, and few people actually make the journey here, but if you do, you can step foot on the same ground that the Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog landed on in 1616.
His expedition was the second European expedition to make landfall anywhere in Australia, years before the British ever began even thinking about setting up colonies on the east coast. To get here, you need to take a barge from the mainland, and you’ll find that on the island there is little except wilderness.
There are a few lodges and camping sites, that are beginning to promote eco-tourism on the island, and if you are looking to get off the beaten track, then Dirk Hartog Island is the place to do it.
To reach Dirk Hartog Island, then you have to catch the barge from Steep Point, which happens to be the most westerly point in mainland Australia. This is the remote western side of the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, and you’ll need a suitable four-wheel-drive vehicle to get here, as the roads are sandy, off-road tracks.
It’s rugged and dramatic, and you can camp out at the Steep Point campsite if you’re looking to stay somewhere truly remote.
Map of Things to do in Shark Bay WA