Why Shark Bay is a World Heritage Area
Shark Bay World Heritage Area covers 2.2 million hectares on the coast of Western Australia. Its colourful and diverse landscapes are home for a profusion of animals and plants, including some found nowhere else on Earth. Its vast seagrass meadows feed and shelter globally endangered species. Complex interactions between these plants, the climate and the marine environment have allowed unusual ‘living fossils’, stromatolites, to thrive, much as they did at the dawn of time. Shark Bay’s extraordinary natural riches are of outstanding global significance.
Shark Bay was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1991 for its natural heritage values. To be inscribed, properties must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of ten selection criteria set by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). You can find the full list of selection criteria here. Shark Bay satisfied all four of the natural criteria for World Heritage listing.
Shark Bay is renowned for its stunning scenery. It is a place of colour and texture, drama and peace: of bright white beaches and blood-red headlands, shallow bays and plunging cliffs.
Shark Bay’s vast seagrass meadows pattern the aquamarine waters with dark dapples, ripples and swirls. The coasts are peppered by rocky islands and fringed with sweeping beaches of glittering sand and shells. The spectacular rolling red sands of the Peron Peninsula, interspersed by oddly shaped claypans called birridas, create a dramatic backdrop to the surrounding seas. Closer to the coast, some birridas have been inundated with seawater, forming tranquil turquoise lagoons.
The western peninsula, Edel Land, is white and rocky. Here limestone outcrops give way to soaring sand dunes, rubble prongs and the knife-edge Zuytdorp Cliffs. Giant surf smashes against the seaward coast of Edel Land and Dirk Hartog, Bernier and Dorre Islands. Humpback whales skirt this coast on their annual migrations. Shark Bay’s inner waters teem with other life, including dugongs, dolphins, turtles, sharks and rays. Back on shore, the heath and shrublands burst into bloom each spring, and wildflowers carpet the sands.
Shark Bay is home to a community of life forms representing a major stage in Earth’s history. They are stromatolites, rock-like structures built by microbes (single-celled cyanobacteria). Shark Bay’s stromatolites are similar to life forms found on Earth up to 3.5 billion years ago! Hamelin Pool in Shark Bay has the most diverse and abundant examples of living marine stromatolites in the world.
For 2.9 billion years microbes were the only life on Earth. They modified the Earth’s atmosphere by producing oxygen, developed the ability to respire oxygen, emerged from the sea to colonise the land, and evolved most of the survival techniques used by life on Earth today. The only present day evidence of their activities can be found in fossilised stromatolites which have preserved the biology of these unique organisms and shows what the environment was like when they were alive. Shark Bay’s stromatolites are ‘living fossils’, providing a unique, modern-day insight into the nature and evolution of Earth’s biosphere, and the history of life on Earth.
Stromatolites at Hamelin Pool
Discover more about these fascinating structures here.
Vast seagrass banks like these at Faure Sill are a World Heritage phenomena.
Shark Bay is a place where it is possible to see evolution in action. This includes not only the development of different plant and animal communities, but also an entire marine ecosystem!
Shark Bay is the transition zone between major ecological provinces, marine and terrestrial, and has a high number of endemic species and others at the limit of their range. Living at the extreme, these plants and animals have stretched their survival capabilities to adapt to their environment. Shark Bay’s isolation means some animals and plants have evolved into distinct subspecies of species found in other parts of Australia. These ongoing ecological processes are important for the scientific study of species distribution, adaptation, diversity and abundance.
Shark Bay’s vast seagrass meadows have influenced the physical, chemical, biological and geomorphic evolution of the region’s marine environment. Sediments trapped by seagrasses have formed banks and sills, affecting tidal flow which, combined with the hot dry climate, have created areas of super-concentrated salinity. This has not only led to the emergence of genetically distinct, salt-tolerant animals, but has allowed the proliferation of cyanobacteria and creation of stromatolites – which are themselves a World Heritage value!
Learn more about the role of seagrass here.
Shark Bay is a refuge for numerous rare and threatened plants and animals. Largely spared the habitat destruction and introduced predators that wreaked havoc on mainland Australia, it is the last stronghold for five critically endangered mammals – four of which occur in the wild nowhere else on Earth. Shark Bay’s sheltered coves and lush seagrass beds are a haven for vulnerable animals such as the humpback whale and green turtle. The world’s largest dugong population grazes in its sheltered waters, and it is one of Australia’s most important nesting areas for the endangered loggerhead turtle. Discover Shark Bay’s threatened species here.
Shark Bay mouse
The meeting point of three climatic zones and two botanical provinces, Shark Bay is home for at least 100 species of reptile and amphibian, 240 bird species, 320 fish, 80 corals, 218 bivalves and 820 species of plant. At least 70 of these species are endemic – from emu-wrens to eucalypts, featherflowers to frogs. Found nowhere else in the world, these species secure Shark Bay’s status as a place vital for the conservation of the Earth’s biological diversity.
Shark Bay has many other exceptional features that contributed to its World Heritage listing. For a more detailed understanding of Shark Bay’s World Heritage values, go here.
How does the Shark Bay World Heritage Area compare?
Shark Bay’s unique stromatolites, wildlife and plants, exceptional landscapes and ongoing evolutionary processes all contributed to its World Heritage listing. By satisfying all four natural criteria, Shark Bay ranks as one of our planet’s most important wilderness regions.
Shark Bay World Heritage brochure
A summary of Shark Bay's World Heritage values and a map showing where to experience them are provided in the Shark Bay World Heritage brochure (3.2MB)