Cockle Shells and Dolphins

Trip Start Jul 08, 2008
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Trip End Sep 11, 2008


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Where I stayed
Dolphin Caravan Park

Flag of Australia  , Western Australia,
Friday, August 29, 2008

We set off first thing on Friday morning for Denham, travelling south for a hundred kilometres and then north again up the peninsular. This meant also crossing the 26th parallel at 10.15am and then again just befor lunch time before arriving in Denham. That day we saw more caravans on the road than all the rest of our trip as many grey nomads were heading back to Perth after spending the winter months in warmer places up north.  With a touch of sadness we also left behind the banana and mango plantations...the mango trees still full of flowers not fruit, so we couldn't even enjoy a fresh mango which we love.

The yellow, purple, lilac, mauve, white, pink and red profusion of wild flowers along the way are a real treat with the landscape getting noticeably greener. We also saw quite a few emus and just before Denham we stopped at Shell Beach. - a unique piece of Australian coastline comprising of countless millions of tiny cockle shells. Scientists have been puzzled as to why so many of these little animals grow so prolifically and leave shells build up to nine metres deep in the area.
The beach stretched as far as the eye could see with beautiful  torquoise pristine shallow water lapping the cockle shell beach.

By lunch time we had set up camp at the Dolphin Caravan Park close to Denham Beach and the main road. Being within easy walking distance of the little town, we enjoyed exploring the sea front up to the town limits and back again. We sent an SMS and soon Jean and Geoff arrived and joined us for afternoon tea and biscuits. A cool wind blowing straight off the ocean made it a bit too uncomfortable to sit outside so we didn't bother to put up the awning or take our table out of the car.

Geoff told us that they had arrived in Monkey Mia too late in the morning to see the dolphins and therefore their entrance ticket would be valid also the next day. They planned to leave early so would not be able to use the ticket and gave it to us saying we should get there by 7.30 in the morning. Jean and Geoff spent a couple of hours with us and then we said our goodbyes as the next day they were on their way home to Adelaide.

We left Denham at 6.35am and were greeted by a cold wind when we arrived at Monkey Mia just after 7am. We were pleased that we had the forsight to put on our jackets and arriving early ensured we had a good view in front of the crowd that came a little later.

One of the big dolphins certainly knew how to entertain us with her antics including opening her mouth wide and laughing at us. The noise she made was quite fascinating to hear. Altogether there were about seven dolphins that came in that morning close to the waters edge including one three day old baby. It was so cute and spent the whole time racing around and around his mother. It was a great experience and fun to be so close to these amazing animals watching them show off for us before receiving their reward of a few fish each. The beach is beautiful but because of the cold wind we found a sheltered spot to warm up in the open air stadium overlooking the ocean and enjoyed the view.  After reading some of the pamphlets, I booked a trip on a 18m luxury catamaran for their dugong viewing cruise. The Aristocat 2 is the only boat licenced to interact with dolphins and dugongs in the "exclusion zone".  I was assured that it wasn't possible to get sea sick on this stable vessel but as a precaution, I went to the resort shop to buy some sea sickness tablets and a bottle of ginger ale!  Twenty minutes into the cruise just across the sparkling waters of Red Cliff Bay we stopped and went onto the new pontoon, "Sea Lab 1" to visit the Blue Lagoon Pearl Farm. We stood around a table as an enthusiastic staff member gave us an interesting and entertaining talk and demonstration of cultivating, seeding and harvesting the Pinctada Albina and Pinctada Margaritifera (black Oyster) which produce magnificent coloured pearls. The seeding is such a skilled process that all the pearl farms call in an expert Japanese lady to perform the task for them. The staff member gave us a demonstration on a newly harvested oyster and cut the flesh for us to try. We then went to the shop section of the pontoon to see some of the magnificent pieces of pricey jewellery they have made there. Something totally new which they have pioneered there is to put a piece of Kalgoorlie Gold or Opal in with the seeding to create unique pieces of jewellery. It was really interesting to hear how the`divers first collect the oysters`from out of the sea and then the long process over many months begins until they harvest the different pearls of varying quality.

After about an hour on the pontoon we returned to the catamaran and headed out to sea. From the boat, the water was so clear we could easily watch many dugongs feeding on the sea grass growing on the sea bed. They surfaced close to the boat often for a breath of fresh air which was quite exciting as the deck was spacious enough for everyone to find a space by the safety rail for a good view. The weather was great with clear blue skies and beautiful turquoise water but the cool wind discouraged everyone from taking advantage of the free boom-netting. In the afternoon on the back to Denham we stopped alongside the road to take photos of the wildflowers. I had been wearing thongs (slops) and when I got back into the car I found the soles where covered in prickly/thorny seeds. We stopped again and scraped them off with a knife and decided that bush walking there is not such a good idea.

Everywhere around Denham and Monkey Mia (in Fact the whole of Shark Bay) where there are
no tarred roads or concrete pavements the ground is covered in little cockle shells. Quite fascinating but it was impossible not to tread these little shells into the caravan which became a bit of a chore to clean out.

Do you know what "Coquinite" is?  The Anglican Church, manse and a couple of other buildings in Denham are built using coquinite bricks, and it is interesting to learn that these bricks are made of natural compressed blocks of cockle shells. The minister told us that the bricks are not really ideal for building as they are quite porous and the rain penetrates them when the weather is particularly bad. They were formed over thousands of years with rain water falling on enormous deposits of tiny Fragum Errugatum shells, repeatedly leaching small quantities of calcium carbonate from the shells. This mixture of dissolved shell and water filters down through the shell embankment, and then, as the water evaporates, cements the shells together into a solid mass known as coquinite. In times gone by blocks were sawn out of a quarry and used to build many building in Shark Bay.

After the Sunday morning service, all fourteen people at the church were invited for coffee at the manse. Most of the locals were away elsewhere on holiday so like many of the churches in the northwest, their congregations are made up mainly with holiday makers. As we were about to leave, Al and Linda Willett invited us to stay for lunch. Al used to work for Telstra in Sydney and when he was made redundant at 50 decided to attend a Bible College there.  After being ordained their first church was in the Blue Mountains, so coming to the small community of Denham is very different for them. They have six children and grandchildren living in Sydney which doesn't make things any easier for them. The view from their lounge on the first floor of the manse built next door to St Andrews by the Sea, Parish of Shark Bay, is spectacular. Afternoon turned into evening and at 6pm we went back to the church for the evening service where we found Al sitting and playing the organ. Linda soon joined us and the four of us had an interesting evening singing hymns and watching a christian video before finishing with a cup of coffee and heading home for bed.

Monday wasn't quite so windy but our washing was still dry quickly so we could still bring it in before heading out to Ocean Park, located in the pristine Shark Bay World Heritage listed precinct about eight kilometres from Denham. This tourist park offers a rarely captured insight into the natural habitat of sharks, sting rays, adult pink snapper and a variety of other sea creatures. We joined a small guided group first looking into the tanks of turtles, rays and other small marine animals before crossing wooden bridges which connect to a shady island in a man-made lagoon with fish of many species swimming in the waters below. We were told that pink snapper are not actually pink until they are dead! Sharks and other fish in the lagoon are fed every day between 12 and 5pm. and we crossed yet another bridge to a bigger pool that is filled with sea water pumped in regularly from the ocean a few metre away. All the marine animals are well looked after and stay here for research and education until they reach a particular size when they are released back into the sea and  freshly caught replacements are brought in for this interesting ecotourism venture in these beautiful natural surroundings. Having seen our fill of marine life we sat out on the deck for a cup of coffee and lunch enjoying the panoramic view across the blue waters to Useless Loop Salt Hills and Dirk Hertog Island.

We enjoyed our few days in Shark Bay but it is such an interesting area with so much to do and see it deserves a longer stay. Perhaps next time a good place for a holiday would be the bush camp at Nanga Bay Resort which is part of a historic 500,000 acre sheep station situated on the ocean front near the famous Shell Beach. Local waters provide excellent fishing, boating and swimming, Monkey Mia is 40 minutes away and shell beach is a mere 5 minutes drive.
So although it seems like 10 weeks is enough time to see the North of Western Australia so much more time is needed to really explore everything there is to offer, but at least we saw a fair bit of this great state and enjoyed what we haven't seen before.

On our way out of the area we called into Hamelin Pool to see the original shell block quarry which is no longer used but retained for posterity. Hamelin Pool, a protected, hyper saline environment is also home to the most significant stromatolite formations in the world. These stromatolites look like rocky lumps strewn around the beach but are actually made up of living organisms too small for the human eye to see. Within the structures are communities of diverse inhabitants with population densities of 3000 million individuals per square metre. The organisms use sediment and organic material to build stromatolites up to 1.5 metres high - that is up to 10 million times their size.
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