Denham sits on the eastern of two peninsulas that stretch out into the Indian Ocean from the mainland. Shark Bay was actually named 'Sharks Bay' by
William Dampier who wrote the following:
'The sea-fish that we saw here (for here was no river, land, or pond of fresh water to be seen) are chiefly sharks. There are abundance of them
in this particular sound, and I therefore give it the name of Shark's Bay.'
Denham is the westernmost town in Australia and is situated in the Shark Bay area on the western side of the central peninsular. The town was originally
known as Freshwater Camp after the fresh water soaks that were close to the current site.
It is touted as a great fishing spot but you have to go 9 miles across the bay near Dirk Hartog Island before you reach the right area by boat, or travel miles
up the western peninsular by 4wd to fish off Steep Point.
On the eastern side of the central peninsular is Monkey Mia, that is made famous by visits from a pod of wild dolphins. The town provides plenty of accommodation,
and the surrounding area is as interesting as it is arid.
Apart from dolphins which have captured the spotlight and are the main draw card for tourists, Shark Bay is also home to what may be the largest population of
dugongs in the world. These gentle creatures can be seen grazing in the shallows on large beds of sea grass. It is most important that motor
boats stay clear of dugongs and do not travel these waters without someone on bow watch.
Despite the name, Shark Bay has only been the scene of two known fatal attacks by sharks on humans. This is despite the fact that fisherman regularly wade into deep
water with their nets. There are undoubtedly a lot of dangerous sharks in the area and you should NEVER go swimming at night or in murky water.
It is well worth the trip off the main highway to visit the area. Nanga (50 Km south of Denham) is another nice place to stay.
Picturesque bays dot the coastline south of the town.
Denham is a pretty town on a lovely stretch of coastline. The locals are some of the friendliest people we have ever met on our travels.
Most of the buildings in town are fairly unremarkable but The Old Pearler Restaurant is built entirely of shell blocks.
Off the coast lies Dirk Hartog Island where a relaxed resort has been established by the Wardle family. The island was the first known landfall for European
explorers and for most of its recent history it has been run as a sheep station. Long term W.A. residents will remember the Tom's chain of supermarkets,
Sir Thomas Wardle was the owner of the chain and bought the island back in 1969. Today the Wardle family only owns 97 hectares on the island with their lease due to run out in 2015.
Withnell Point at the north end of the island was named after the pioneering Withnell family that settled Mt. Welcome Station near Roebourne.
The Withnells would go on to work and own the station on Dirk Hartog Island. Another well known person who held the lease was
Tommy Talbot (the man who claimed
Ford jumped his claim in the goldfields) and later still the lease was held by Thomas Wardle.
Another working station that has been turned into a tourist resort is Nanga Station. (Nanga meaning water in the Aboriginal language). This lies on the coast south of
Denham and is a popular jumping off point for boat fishermen heading further south to White Island where pink snapper can be found.
At the neck (narrowest point) of the peninsula on the northern side is Shell Beach. The beach is formed by billions of tiny cockle shells. The piles of shells extend inland
for up to a kilometre and are as much as 4 metres deep. It is thought that this process of accumulation has been going on for 5,000 years.
The vast quantity of shells can be explained by the lack of species that pre-date on them. The cockles (Fragum erugatum) are salt tolerant and as the bay they live in is
twice as salty as normal sea water, they can survive in the area but species that normally eat the shellfish cannot.
The 262 square kilometre Hamelin Pool and 110 square kilometres at Lharidon Bight are ideal habitats for the cockles. The cockles usually spawn once a year in winter
and individuals live for about 2 years.
Storms and cyclones form ridges of shells along the beach. Studying the ridges gives an indication of how often major cyclones have passed over the area. Currently this
is thought to happen about once every 50 years.
The peninsula at Shark Bay provided an excellent opportunity to develop a safe haven for native wildlife. This was made possible by the Taillefer Isthmus, a narrow 3.4
kilometre neck of land that joins the peninsula to the mainland.
Tall electrified fences were built from one side to the other, extending right out into the sea. This helped to stop the movement of feral cats and foxes into the sanctuary zone.
The weak point in this defence was the road grid where foxes were still able to gain entry. The solution to this was motion detectors linked to speakers that would play barking
dog sounds if anything approached the grid area.
Initially foxes were targeted for removal from the fenced off area and this was very successful. This directly led to a three fold increase in the feral cat population as foxes
will take kittens and compete for food. Baits were developed and about 80% of the feral cats were removed using this method. This was followed up by trapping, not as you
might expect by using food as a lure but by using sound and scent as a method of luring cats into traps.
Foxes were eliminated from the peninsula and cats reduced to a low enough level for native species to be re-introduced. Project Eden has been a remarkable success and the
knowledge gained has assisted in the removal of feral pests from other parts of the state.
Camping in the shire.
Camping within the Shire of Shark Bay is restricted, permission must be obtained from the shire office either by telephone, on 08 9948 1218, or in person, during office
hours (8am to 4pm Monday to Friday). Other services including Email, police licensing and a small library are available at the shire office. A small fee is charged for
each camping permit.
Permission to camp can be obtained on the day you intend to camp, or if you are camping on the weekend or a public holiday, on the weekday before. Those people found
camping without authorisation will incur a $1000 fine.
There are four designated Campsites controlled by the shire. All sites are 2WD, dirt road, access and suitable for caravans. The four sites are:
Eagle Bluff situated 18Km from Denham. Camping is available down at the nearby lagoon. This site offers excellent bird watching opportunities with Osprey and Sea Eagles
often seen in the area. Eagle Bluff is also a popular snorkelling and fishing site.
Fowlers Camp is approximately 22Km from Denham. This site offers some protection from the wind for those in tents. Fowlers camp offers good beach fishing, as well as a
small mangrove stand.
Whalebone is approximately 25Km from Denham. Whalebone offers easily accessible flat sites ideal for caravans only a short distance from the beach.
Goulet Bluff is approximately 36Km from Denham and a short distance down the road. from Shell Beach.
There are no facilities at these campsites and campers must obey the following rules:
all rubbish is to be removed from the campsite
all human waste is to be buried
chemical toilets are not to be emptied at the sites
open fires are not permitted
vegetation is not to be removed
vehicles are to drive on designated tracks
Fresh water is not available at the campsites but can be obtained from the Water Corporation tanks, located on the Monkey Mia Road. approximately
50m from the Denham Road. turn off. These tanks are coin operated.
During wet weather visitors to the shire are advised to contact the shire office, to check on road conditions prior to travelling on unsealed roads.
Shark Bay - World Heritage Listed.
Shark Bay was put on the World Heritage list in 1991. The area meets all 4 natural criteria for natural heritage listing and is one of only 16 sites in the world to do so.
The criteria are:
Representing the major stages of the earth's evolutionary history.
Representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes.
Demonstrating superlative natural phenomena, formation and features.
Containing important and significant natural habitats where threatened species of animals or plants of outstanding universal value still survive.
Shark Bay contains the largest and most diverse area of sea grass in the world. This supports a population of some 11,000 dugong which is also the largest population
of these animals in the world. 5 of Australia's 26 species of endangered mammals are found in the area and
Hamelin Pool is home to a colony of stromatolites that have existed as a life form for 3.5 billion years.
Diving in Shark Bay.
While the landscapes of Shark Bay are very well known to travellers, it is the under water views that are becoming more and more popular.
The shallow bays and sea grass meadows are attracting divers from around the world. The chance of encountering large sea creatures such as dugongs, dolphins,
whales and even sharks combined with coral gardens and a large variety of small fishes makes Shark Bay very popular.
The wreck of the Gudrun, a timber vessel that was sabotaged by its own ship's carpenter, lies in about 6 metres of water north of Cape Peron. The wreck is now a
sanctuary site and archaeologists rate it as one of W.A.'s best dive wrecks.
Dive sites of note in Shark Bay include Monkey Rock, Bar Flats, Eagle Bluff, Georgies Reef and Bottle Bay. Due to he strong tidal movements in Shark Bay it is
recommended that diving is only done during slack water between tides.
The town was named after Captain Henry Mangles Denham
who charted the area aboard HMS Herald in 1858. The bay was surveyed as part of a much larger marine survey that took Denham and his men 9 years to complete.
It was the longest maritime survey ever carried out by the Royal Navy. The survey lasted from 1852 to 1861. The HMS Herald was famous in its own way as it was
the ship the treaty of Waitangi (in New Zealand) was signed on.
The first industry in the area was guano collection and a small military garrison was established to oversee the operations. The garrison became necessary when Lieutenant
Helpman was sent to the area to investigate what was going on and discovered an number of foreign ships (some from as far away as England) helping themselves to the
guano deposits. Government, being Government, established a barracks at Quion Bluff and then charged a fee per ton of guano mined. When the guano ran out the detachment
was withdrawn in 1851 but small scale collection of guano continued until about 1900.
Sandalwood was collected in the area from the 1860s and in 1863 the Government imposed a license fee on sandalwood cutters. By 1939 most of the
sandalwood had been removed and the industry collapsed.
Denham (first called Freshwater Camp) was established as a pearling base in 1850 and was gazetted in 1898. Unlike the pearling methods used later in Broome,
pearling in Shark Bay was done by dredging and dumping the shells on the shore. As a result the streets were paved with pearl shell. Some twit at the local roads board decided that
bitumen looked better than the shells and the whole lot was buried in the 1960s.
The pearlers were opposed to the site being declared a town as the method of dumping pearl shells on the shore and allowing them to begin rotting before being boiled down to
get at any pearls, meant that there was quite a smell involved and the declaration of a new town site would mean the imposition of health regulations that would force them to
move further out.
In November 1886 there was a dangerous confrontation between European and Chinese pearlers. Initially the Chinese had been brought in as a cheap source of labour but in
time they purchased boats of their own and started pearling in competition with their former bosses.
The Europeans complained about the competition and blamed the Chinese for the steep decline in oyster catches (in actual fact everyone over fished the area until it was
hardly viable). A lease system was brought in and only made available to local residents - thus excluding the Chinese. The Chinese them sought legal representation and
made an offer for the leases several hundred pounds higher than the 1000 pounds offered by European interests. The leases went to the Europeans anyway and the
Chinese declared that they would ignore the rules and return to work regardless.
A group of 20 Chinese and 30 European boats gathered in a face off at Tetradon Loop and the groups were only held apart by the presence of the police on the boat Jessie.
C.D.V. Foss, the Resident Magistrate in Carnarvon was hurriedly dispatched to resolve the issue and after some negotiations the Government agreed
to purchase the Chinese fleet and pearling gear for 1000 pounds, this was then sold at auction but only brought in 244 pounds. On the surface it looks like the Government
lost on the deal until you remember the lease fees that had been imposed. It was fruitless in any case as by 1893 the oyster beds had been mostly destroyed by over fishing.
Other industries in the area include shell grit mining, salt production and Useless Loop and gypsum mining.
It was during the 1880s that Shark Bay became known as the 'murder and suicide capital of W.A.'.
Denham remained off the tourist route for a long time with no sealed access road in from the main highway. The Roads Board was established in 1904 but was disbanded
in 1945 after in inquiry found a number of 'irregularities'. For the next 12 years the function was overseen by Commissioner George Lindsay.
In the early 1900s bores were sunk to obtain fresh water but a huge cyclone in 1921 not only brought destruction to property (and drowning two sailors) it also meant a
large tidal surge which caused salt water to get into many of the wells. By the time new bores could be sunk Peron Station had lost around 7000 sheep.
Electricity only came to the town in 1962 and the 130 kilometre stretch of road to the highway was only sealed in 1985.
In 1999 a 'wind farm' was established to help generate power for the town. The design of these modern turbines uses lift instead of drag to spin the blades.
This makes them significantly more efficient and the turbines can start to generate power at wind speeds of just 9 kilometres an hour. (Peak power generation is
reached at 47 kilometres an hour and at 90 kilometres an hour the turbines will shut down to prevent damage.) The wind farm is currently capable of generating half
of Denham's power needs.
TALL TALES AND TRUE
The following advert was placed in a local paper by a resident of Denham seeking a partner.
'Matrimony. Wanted, a wife. Age or nationality not important. Must be able to open pearl shell. Not steal pearls. Square dinkum. Replies to .. Denham.
Pommie John and the Submarine.
John Woodward was a new comer to fishing in the area when he bought a small boat in the 1950s and went out on his own. The locals didn't like his
chances but apparently he went out near to the lighthouse on Dirk Hartog Island and came back to Denham many times with enough fish.
On one trip he anchored up just off the light house as usual and turned in for the night. In the morning he found that the anchor had pulled and he was
now some 7 kilometres west of the island and rapidly drifting out to sea. He tried to start the motor but found his battery had gone flat. With nothing left
to do he waited and watched the horizon for any sign of a ship that would save him.
Imagine his surprise when up from under the surface came an American submarine that was on route from Fremantle to Singapore. They had spotted
him and wondered what such a small boat was doing that far out to sea. They replaced his battery and gave him some supplies then towed him in to
the island before departing. In return he gave them the fresh fish from his ice box.
Locals didn't really believe the story until a photo was produced showing his boat alongside the submarine. Pommie John moved on and went fishing
round the islands off Geraldton but after another near escape where his boat was capsized and he had to swim to shore he gave up his adventurous ways and returned to England.
(A copy of the photo of the submarine and John with his boat can be seen in Hugh Edwards' book 'Shark Bay through 4 centuries'.)
The Peron Station shearing shed was located within walking distance to the local pub and it was quite common for the day to start with a full
compliment of hard working thirsty shearers. By morning smoko one or two shearers didn't make it back to work, after lunch one or two more would
go missing and by afternoon smoko the shearing shed could remain empty for the rest of the day.
All at sea in an esky
The fishing boat Nor 6 was on her way to a safe anchorage in the South Passage in the dark when she struck cliffs not far south of the safe harbour.
Jack Drinan was thrown into the sea and as the boat broke up and sank he spotted the brine tank (a huge esky) that is kept on deck to store the catch.
He managed to swim to the brine tank and broke in through the top cover. He was now safe from drowning and had a small supply of food and water (from the ice).
The bad news was that the wind was blowing him out to sea. Day after day the winds took him away from shore and his water eventually ran out. He drank small
amounts of sea water (something you should never do) and started to hallucinate but was saved from death by rain which he managed to collect and divert to
one of the compartments in the brine tank.
Several days after he first got into the tank he decided to fashion a raft from the foam insulation of the tank just in case he got close enough to shore to paddle in.
By this time all searches had been abandoned and he was given up for dead by those on land.
One day he spotted a passing ship but despite calling out he was not seen. After 14 days he finally saw land again and to his surprise he was back almost at the
original site of the wreck. Just as he thought he was saved the wind began to blow off shore again and he had to make the decision to get on the foam raft and paddle to shore.
A strong current almost carried him out to sea again but in the end he did make it to land (near the un-manned light house). Even so he was not safe. There
was no-one there to help him and he reasoned that if he stayed where he was he may die from lack of water or food before he was found. He took to the water
again on his raft and was lucky to bee seen and rescued by a local fishing boat.
His story about being carried out and back by the currents was scoffed at by many who thought he had just remained at the lighthouse but many years later his
story was confirmed when the brine tank was found washed ashore in the same vicinity - it had come back a third time on its own.