Look out across Shark Bay from Denham on a clear day and you’ll spy a thin strip of land on the western horizon.
Out yonder is Dirk Hartog Island, the most westerly point of the UNESCO World Heritage region, not to mention Australia itself.
The Starfish set off to explore this remote island jewel. We charged across the bay on a sunny but blustery winter day aboard the Ocean Park tour boat, which visits Dirkie three times a week.
There are four ways to get to the island: go with the Ocean Park crew, fly in a light aircraft, sail your own vessel or take a 4WD across on the Steep Point barge. We couldn’t fly because recent heavy rain had turned the island runway into a sloppy quagmire.
We were joining a friend on the isle and meeting him at the Dirk Hartog Island Eco Lodge (the island’s only permanent commercial accommodation).
The island is long and skinny, about 80 kilometres long and three to 15 kilometres wide. Steep cliffs on the western side slope gradually eastwards, toward a low limestone coastline fronting the bay.
On this sheltered east side of the island, aquamarine and turquoise shallows stretch away from dazzling white sand and shell beaches and bays. On the wild western side, inky blue and cerulean depths undulate with big swells marching in off the Indian Ocean and crashing against the rugged cliffs.
Teeming with marine life, the seas around the island remain some of the healthiest and most pristine waters on the planet.
The island itself is a mixture of sand, rusty pindan, limestone and sandstone; while vegetation is low and shrubby, harbouring a surprising number of animals and birds.
An Alternative History of Discovery
DHI has a long maritime history. It was visited by several notable European explorers, most of them well before Captain Cook stumbled on the continent’s east coast and the First Fleet sailed in. (Recent highly politicised efforts to hype the trailblazing achievements of Cook and Co. on the east coast fall rather flat when one is aware of the history of what happened on the west coast over 150 years beforehand).
The arrival of Dirk Hartog in 1616 marked the first recorded European landing on Australia’s west coast. To record his visit, he climbed a cliff, set a wooden post into a cleft in the rock and nailed a pewter plate to it with details of his arrival.
Hartog’s Plate remained at Cape Inscription until the arrival of another Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh in 1697, who replaced the plate with one of his own. Hartog’s Plate is now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Then came the French. In 1772, navigator Louis Aleno de St Aloüarn landed on the island and became the first European to claim possession of Western Australia in the name of French King Louis XV. We didn’t hear much about these activities in our very anglicized portrayal of Australia’s beginnings.
In 1818 French explorer Louis de Freycinet came across de Vlamingh’s plate and took it back to France. The plate was eventually returned to Australia in 1947 and is currently housed in the Maritime Museum in Fremantle.
In 1869 a pastoral lease was granted to one Francis Louis von Bibra who established sheep on the island and traded guano from bird droppings collected in the bays.
In 1907 the Withnell family purchased the property and established a sheep station, primarily because the island was free of rabbits. Later the property was taken over by local station owner James Nicholas who ended up running approximately 19,000 sheep.
Perth Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Wardle purchased the island as a private retreat for his family in 1969 and later retired there.
An Island Ark of Great Importance
The island is now under government Parks and Wildlife ownership and has became part of the Shark Bay Marine Park, with the exception of a few small lots and the pastoral homestead, which is now run as the eco-tourism resort and maintained by Sir Thomas’s grandson, Kieran Wardle.
The island’s history as a pastoral lease came to an end in 2008 with sheep and goat de-stocking, as well as feral animal eradication.
In 2018 it was, happily, declared free of feral cats, goats and sheep, paving the way for the reintroduction of native animals, most of which had disappeared following a century and a half of pastoral activity. It is now is a national park and an island ark for rare animals.
As part of the Return to 1616 Project, Rufous and banded hare-wallabies have already been translocated from nearby Bernier and Dorre Islands and appear to be doing well. Other species to be returned to the island include the chuditch, mulgara, greater stick-nest rat, desert mouse, Shark Bay mouse, heath mouse, western barred bandicoot, woylie, dibbler and boodie.
We spent most of our stay on the island enjoying the many terrestrial and marine wonders.
Our lazy days would entail morning coffee watching the sunrise before taking a reviving plunge at the beautiful beach at Cape Ransonnet.
This is where the island barge steams to and from Steep Point on the mainland, loading and unloading passengers and 4WDs – quite the social scene of a morn.
As one lazy day rolled into the next, we ticked off the local attractions one by one. On our first full day we drove out to Surf Point, stood high on the headland and watched a good-sized ground swell marching into this most southerly point of the island.
Dirkie is orientated into the prevailing south-westerly swells, which often roll all the way from the great storms in the southern Indian Ocean, reaching this untamed coastline in deep blue corduroy lines.
Hence the coast here is something of a surfer’s nirvana, but the reefs are jagged and covered in coral and sea urchins and the waves are often big and very powerful. Only experienced surfers should give it a burl. And, of course, they didn’t call the place Shark Bay for nothing.
Speaking of “Noahs”, Surf Point is a great spot to see some smaller ones inside the headland. Here there are often large schools of nervous sharks (yep, it’s not only the people that get twitchy) hunting and scavenging in the shallows.
One afternoon we took the runabout out off Sunday Island Bay and jigged for squid in the sea grass beds, a strangely meditative and rewarding distraction, not to mention, tasty. We snagged a goodly haul for both dinner and bait, and came home spattered in viscous cephalopod mollusc ink.
There’s nothing quite like a pile of freshly caught squid, a hearty salad and a few cheeky beakers of white to top off the day.
Striking Flora and Fauna
Morning walks become a ritual. There are no paved roads on the island so we’d set off along the tracks to check out the flora and fauna.
The relentless westerly winds keep the island vegetation low: we can’t recall seeing a single tree over three metres tall. Yet the low heath land and scrub has a stark beauty and we’d come at a time of year to see it at its best.
The heavy rains that hit the island before we arrived spurred the wild flowers into bloom and the subtle pastel colours grew more mesmerising each day.
Lilac Shark Bay daisies are scattered near the shorelines and the distinctive Tamala Rose adds flashes of pink and red. The yellow tufts of acacias are littered throughout the shrub land and eremophilas add red and mauve to the landscape.
This kaleidoscope of colours against a backdrop of russet soil and dazzling blue-green seas is a sight to behold in the winter and spring months.
The low shrubby vegetation harbours a range of animal life including the Dirk Hartog Island black and white fairy-wren – found nowhere else – and the sandhill frog whose distribution is very limited.
We saw and heard the rare wrens flitting between the scrub, but the frogs were no doubt lying low in the dunes.
One afternoon we went for a surf-ski paddle out on Sunday Island Bay hoping that a regular local, Derek the Dugong, might come snuffling about among the sea grass, but he must have been working the shallows elsewhere during our visit. There are around 10,000 dugongs in Shark Bay, so you have a pretty good chance of seeing one of these large chubby beasts on a visit.
The best fishing at DHI is out on the open ocean.
Waiting a few days for the right conditions, we shot out South Passage into the deep blue sea, where we hung close to the cliffs and dropped our lines on some of the better fishing spots in the area.
It’s a pretty spectacular place to run out a line, if a little ominous with the surf surging against the high cliffs. One can’t help but keep one peeper on the line and the other on the horizon. King waves, boats and cliffs aren’t great combo.
Waiting for nibbles, we chatted about how terrifying it must have been for the early Dutch sailors on their way to Batavia, riding a westerly storm in the dead of night and suddenly slamming into this treacherous and unforgiving coastline. Little wonder few survived such incidents and their ships were lost.
Over 1400 vessels have been wrecked on the coast of Western Australia, many along this very coast.
Out off Steep Point we spotted humpback whales on their migration and several turtles flopping about in the swell. That’s the thing about Shark Bay: just when things get quiet, you seem to spot another natural wonder.
Our first sortie didn’t produce much, but the following day, after trawling for some more bait squid in the bay, we headed out to the big blue again.
We tried a few spots, including one where the pesky sharks kept taking hook, line and sinker. Undaunted we decided to rattle a few clicks north to the famous blowholes in search of the elusive Pink Snapper – and hit the jackpot.
With the blowholes roaring like jet engines only metres away the pinkies and gold band finally gave into our charms, and within half an hour we had our quota.
That evening we visited the Inscription Bar at the Eco Resort and chatted with a gaggle of Wheatbelt farmers over a few pints, before returning to a feed of the freshest snapper and squid known to man.
Preserving a Glorious Place
The beaches around the island are arguably some of the most pristine on the planet, so we were a little taken aback to find quite a bit of plastic on some of them. We spent a bit of time bagging up this scourge of the modern seas so it could be disposed of correctly.
They say by the 2050s there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish, unless we change our ways. A depressing state of affairs, but one easily remedied if we can just do the right thing with our garbage.
On our last night we drove back to the blowholes, this time watching them blasting away from the top of the cliffs, an area that looks more like the surface of Mars due to millennia of salt spray, sun, wind and sandblasting.
We saw a pod off whales spouting and breaching about kilometre off in glary, wind-chopped seas and toasted the island sunset with a glass of rosé.
The next day we packed up and made the crossing back to Denham, spotting a manta ray and several flying fish during the run.
We’d only scratched the surface on our all-too-quick trip exploring the south end of DHI. There is much more to see.
It is truly one of WA’s most beautiful places and beckons for another visit, ideally when the south turns cold and wet, and the warm, enchanting north calls again.