Shark Bay's World Heritage area has come of age. It is 21 years since this 2.2 million hectares of land and sea became the first area in Australia to join the UNESCO World Heritage list.
It satisfied all of the four natural criteria for that listing - natural beauty, biological diversity, ecological processes and Earth's history - and, in an interesting twist, is adjacent to Australia's newest World Heritage Area, Ningaloo Coast, which was inscribed last year.
A spokesman for Australia's Coral Coast tourism region points out that the Shark Bay World Heritage Area includes the stromatolites (original producers of oxygen) of Hamelin Pool, Shell Beach (120km long and some 10m deep in cockle shells), Francois Peron National Park and endemic species of flora and fauna. Shark Bay Marine Park has 1500km of coastline and is home to more than 320 species of marine life, including manta rays, whales and turtles.
"Its vast seagrass meadows support about 10 per cent of the world's dugong population."
But Shark Bay's listing did not come without struggle and controversy. Conservationists lobbied for the listing, while others were concerned that it might override local control and restrict what people could do in the area. It was a flashpoint but, in 1990, _The West Australian _'s editorial column commented: "In spite of the controversy and confusion that preceded it, the agreement between the State and Federal governments over Shark Bay's World Heritage nomination appears to be a reasonable compromise which will safeguard both the environment and human activity in the area.
"The listing of Shark Bay will confer international recognition on the special nature of features such as Monkey Mia and its dolphins, Hamelin Pool's ancient stromatolites, the wide seagrass banks and the Bernier and Dorre islands, which provide the habitat for several unique species of animals. The listing will not by itself impose anything more than a moral responsibility on Australian authorities to ensure the preservation of Shark Bay's special features. UNESCO's World Heritage Bureau, which confers the listings, has no power beyond that to withdraw them."
Shark Bay residents had been concerned about laws which might give the Federal government power to assume control over listed areas. Those powers had enabled Canberra to overrule the Tasmanian government and to block logging there. The Shark Bay agreement, by contrast, includes complementary legislation which effectively retained control of the listed area in WA and enshrined the State Government's Shark Bay Region Plan of the time.
Back then, in 1990, it was predicted that being elevated into the ranks of other exceptional natural wonders, there would be new opportunities to promote the region's tourism potential.
And so it has proved.
But Australia's Coral Coast chief executive David O'Malley says that despite global awareness of Shark Bay and its thriving tourism industry, it remains an unspoilt region of natural beauty with untouched rust red sand contrasting with clear turquoise water.
"People visit from all over the world to immerse themselves in Shark Bay's colourful and diverse landscapes and to get up close to the area's wealth of wildlife," Mr O'Malley says.
"Monkey Mia's famous friendly dolphins have been attracting families for many years and there are so many other activities and attractions to enjoy in the area.
"Many people do a wildlife cruise to get up close to Shark Bay's marine life and there's also a great aquarium in the area," Mr O'Malley says.
"The area's rich indigenous history can be explored on an Aboriginal walking, kayaking or four-wheel-driving tour."
·sharkbay.org, sharkbayvisit.com, australiascoralcoast.com
HOW TO EXPLORE
How do visitors set about seeing one of the world's most valued landscapes? Australia's Coral Coast has compiled this fly/drive itinerary for Shark Bay's World Heritage Area and the region.
Day 1: Perth to Exmouth (Learmonth Airport)
Take a morning flight from Perth to Exmouth (Learmonth Airport). In the afternoon take a glass-bottom boat cruise in Exmouth to view the reef's diverse marine life, or go snorkelling over coral in Ningaloo Marine Park. Overnight: Exmouth.
Day 2: Explore Exmouth
Spend the day fishing, swimming or diving. The Navy Pier is one of the world's best diving spots. If you visit between mid-March and late July you can swim with the whale sharks. Alternatively, spend the day exploring the western side of Cape Range National Park. In the park, Turquoise Bay offers excellent drift snorkelling. Learn about the marine and coastal range environments at Milyering Visitor Centre. There's a marked walk trail into the gorges of Cape Range National Park, and a boat cruise at Yardie Creek. Overnight: Exmouth.
Day 3: Exmouth to Carnarvon (367km)
Take an early morning dip and head south to Carnarvon, where fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood thrive in the subtropical climate. This historic town is a great place to rest and take in the indigenous and pioneering heritage of the Gascoyne region. At the award- winning Gascoyne Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Centre, Gwoonwardu Mia, visitors can learn about Aboriginal culture and history. In the afternoon, there's history at the Carnarvon Heritage Precinct on the site of the 1890s Port of Carnarvon, or stroll on the One Mile Jetty. Built in 1897. Carnarvon's famous jetty is one of the longest in the southern hemisphere. After you've finished for the day, enjoy a seafood meal at one of the town's restaurants. Overnight: Carnarvon.
Day 4: Carnarvon to Shark Bay (300km)
Head south on the North West Coastal Highway and turn right on to the Shark Bay World Heritage Drive. Stop at each of the landmarks along the way to learn about the area's rich fauna, flora and heritage. Sites include the Hamelin Pool stromatolites (the oldest living fossils in the world) and the calm, crystal waters of Shell Beach (a 120km stretch of beach made entirely of tiny shells). Stop at Eagle Bluff for ocean views and spot marine life in the water below. If you've made good time on this leg of the trip, head to the Peron Homestead for a glimpse of Shark Bay's heritage. Enjoy a drink on the foreshore at Denham or Monkey Mia and watch the sun set. Overnight: Denham or Monkey Mia.
Day 5: Explore Shark Bay
Spend the morning at Monkey Mia, where bottlenose dolphins regularly visit the shores. They are fed a small amount of fish up to three times daily, which accounts for one-third of their daily diet. The first feeding is usually about 7.30am. Afterwards, get up close to more of Shark Bay's marine life on a wildlife cruise or indigenous kayaking tour. Join a day tour to Francois Peron National Park for some rugged adventure. Nearby, Little Lagoon is an ideal spot for an afternoon picnic. Overnight: Denham or Monkey Mia.
Day 6: Monkey Mia to Coral Bay (564km)
Leave Monkey Mia in the morning and head north. Stop for lunch in Carnarvon and stroll along the Fascine, Carnarvon's historic central waterway. Visit some of the farms and plantations along the Gascoyne Food Trail to sample and stock up on fresh produce and preserves. Continue the journey to Coral Bay. Overnight: Coral Bay. Or visit the Blowholes (70km north of Carnarvon) where water forced through sea caves at speed causes a sea spray up to 20m high. Continue north of the Blowholes and explore Red Bluff and Gnaraloo Bay (access by four-wheel-drive). Here, there are cliffs, beaches and wildlife. The area also offers excellent fishing, surfing, windsurfing, kite surfing and swimming.
Day 7: Explore Coral Bay
There are hundreds of fish and coral species in Coral Bay's calm, protected waters - all you need are a mask and snorkel. Take a glass-bottom boat tour or join a snorkelling tour. You can even swim with manta rays in Coral Bay all year. They have a wingspan up to several metres wide and, unlike stingrays, they have no barb and are safe to swim with. Overnight: Coral Bay.
Day 8: Explore Coral Bay
Spend another day in Coral Bay for more swimming and snorkelling, or beach fishing. Fishing charters head to sea regularly and there are scuba diving tours. When it's time to dry off, take a 4WD along the coast or hire a quad bike for some rugged adventure. Overnight: Coral Bay.
Day 9: Coral Bay to Learmonth Airport (116km)
Take one last morning dip in the crystal waters of Coral Bay before departing for Learmonth Airport for the afternoon flight back to Perth.