Shark Bay's History

Shark Bay’s European Heritage

Shark Bay was listed as a World Heritage Area for its outstanding natural values, but it is also significant in the history of the European settlement of Australia.

Shark Bay:

  • is the site of the first recorded landing of a European in Western Australia
  • was visited by several notable explorers, whose scientific descriptions and collections represent the earliest non-indigenous records of Australia’s plants and animals;
  • features several shipwreck sites; and
  • has many non-indigenous cultural heritage sites, including camps and other evidence of 19th century industries.


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First visitors

Europeans visited Shark Bay as early as 1616, when Dutch merchant seaman Dirk Hartog made the first recorded European landing in Western Australia. He was followed by a succession of explorers, whose work did much to advance European understanding of Australia. 
But not all voyages were for scientific discovery – one navigator claimed this part of the continent for France. Had things turned out as planned Australia’s colonial history would have been very different!
Who were these intrepid seafarers? Discover their stories here.

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Unfortunately, where there are ships there are also shipwrecks. Shark Bay is the grave of more than a dozen ships, including whalers, pearl luggers and fishing boats. Some wrecks, such as that of the Zuytdorp (1712), are of cultural significance. Discover some historic shipwrecks here.

European settlement of Shark Bay

Much of the history of Shark Bay’s non-indigenous settlement has been tied to the harvest of the region’s natural resources. Guano mining, pearling, pastoralism, sandalwood cutting and fishing brought people and profit to the region. Whaling too was an important industry – humpback whales were captured around Dirk Hartog Island, and more than 7,850 were processed at the Babbage Island whaling station in Carnarvon until its closure in 1963. 

These days tourism is one of the region’s economic mainstays.
Learn more about the history of Shark Bay’s European settlement here.

You can discover more about Shark Bay’s cultural heritage at the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre in Denham.