World Heritage

Why Shark Bay is a World Heritage area

Aerial view of the seagrass banks on Faure Sill

Vast seagrass banks like these at Faure Sill are a World Heritage phenomena.

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 resulting in it being classified as a world heritage area.

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). 

Shark Bay satisfies 4 of the 10 selection criteria


Criterion (vii):to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;

The stromatolites, which represent the oldest form of life on Earth and are comparable to living fossils are examples of superlative natural phenomena. Shark Bay is also one of the few marine areas in the world dominated by carbonates not associated with reef-building corals. This has led to the development of the Wooramel Seagrass Bank within Shark Bay, one of the largest seagrass meadows in the world with the most seagrass species recorded from one area. These values are supplemented by marine fauna such as dugong, dolphins, sharks, rays, turtles and fish, which occur in great numbers.Stromatolites at Hamelin Pool

Criterion (viii):to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features

The stromatolites in the hypersaline Hamelin Pool are one of the world’s best examples of a living analogue for the study of the nature and evolution of the earth’s biosphere up until the early Cambrian.

The Wooramel Seagrass Bank is also of great geological interest due to the extensive deposit of limestone sands associated with the bank, formed by the precipitation of calcium carbonate from hypersaline waters.

Criterion (ix): to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals

Shark Bay provides outstanding examples of processes of biological and geomorphic evolution taking place in a largely unmodified environment. These include the evolution of the Bay’s hydrological system, the hypersaline environment of Hamelin Pool and the biological processes of ongoing speciation, succession and the creation of refugia. One of the exceptional features of Shark Bay is the steep gradient in salinities, creating three biotic zones that have a marked effect on the distribution and abundance of marine organisms.

The unusual features of Shark Bay have also created the Wooramel Seagrass Bank. Covering 103,000 ha, it is the largest structure of its type in the world. Australia has one of the highest diversity of seagrasses globally, with 12 species occurring in the Bay. Learn more about the role of seagrass here.

Criterion (x): to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

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 - one of Shark Bay's rare mammals

Shark Bay mouse is listed as vulnerable to extinction

Click here for a more detailed analysis of Shark Bay's world heritage values

Shark Bay World Heritage brochure

Why World Heritage? brochure