Guano mining was the first land-based industry in Shark Bay and initiated the first European settlement of the area, in 1850. A natural fertiliser, guano provided the colony of Western Australia with one of its earliest commercial exports. Islands scraped flat by the miners are testimony to the environmental impact of the ‘guano rush’. But this valuable commodity also had an unexpected spin-off: the founding of Shark Bay’s pearling industry.
A ready-made fertiliser
Guano is a phosphate-rich fertiliser derived from seabird excrement. The nesting seabirds on Shark Bay’s smaller islands had been converting fish to fertiliser for thousands of years, creating accumulations several metres thick.
- In the days before chemical fertilisers, guano was worth a fortune and in great demand.
- The discovery of guano in Shark Bay was well received both in the struggling colony and in Europe, where the Peruvian monopoly of the trade made guano prohibitively expensive.
Ships travelled from Britain, a journey of several months, to collect guano for farms back home!
Mining started in 1850 at Egg Island, off the east coast of Dirk Hartog Island. For decades convicts scraped and shovelled guano off at least 13 islands in Henri Freycinet Harbour, including Smith, Sunday and Eagle Islands and North and South Guano Islands.
Mining quickly stripped the islands and affected the plant life growing there. North and South Guano Islands are now nature reserves with the highest level of protection under Western Australian law. Mining is banned, and guano is accumulating once more.
Dangerous to shipping
Guano was valuable, but the stakes were high. Bad weather, uncharted shoals and unsure anchorages made it difficult for large vessels to get close to the smaller islands, or to navigate to the safety of deeper water.
- In 1850 the 443-ton barque Prince Charlie struck the Levillain shoal, off Cape Levillain on the northern tip of Dirk Hartog Island, after loading guano.
- In 1878 the Levillain shoal claimed another victim, the 125-ton barque Macquarie and its guano cargo. The shipwrecked sailors struggled back to Cape Levillain and then walked for three days, without food or water, down Dirk Hartog Island until they were rescued by another vessel in South Passage.
From guano to pearls
Anxious to protect this valuable commodity, in 1850 the Government established a garrison at Quoin Bluff, on Dirk Hartog Island. (Another military outpost was later established at Cape Heirisson in Edel Land.) An official sent to investigate illegal guano shipments noticed Shark Bay’s copious banks of pearl shell. The samples he showed to merchants in Perth met with an enthusiastic response, and the Shark Bay pearling industry was born.
The stone ruins of the Quoin Bluff garrison can be seen today, as well as stone jetty foundations and other artefacts. Archaeologists studying miners’ camps on the smaller islands have found artefacts including Asian and European ceramics and glassware.
You can discover more about Shark Bay’s cultural heritage at the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre in Denham.