At the south end of Western Australia’s Shark Bay is unusual Hamelin Pool. On our way there we stopped at Shell Beach, again, unusual. Instead of being covered with sand, it’s covered with cockleshells, not alive, alive, oh. The water of Shark Bay is also, well, unusual. And then there are the stromatolites. All of these phenomena are part of a World Heritage Area, as they should be.
Due to the area’s hot, dry climate and Shark Bay’s shallowness, bay water evaporates quickly concentrating natural salt and creating one of the few hypersaline water environments in the world. The process also reduces sea life to only a few species that can survive in super-saltiness, like the long-ago cockleshell residents.
Billions of them have created Shell Beach on the western side of the Pèron Peninsula. A reportedly 68 mile long and 10 to 15 feet deep mass of empty shells, this is one of only 2 such concentrations in the world. The other is on St Barts in the Caribbean. Cockleshells are so plentiful here that, before the beach was declared World Heritage, locals used their limestone known as Coquina in building construction. When wet, Coquina make nice white bricks. Visitors can walk on this beach but not remove shells for souvenirs. This beach stroll is admittedly kind of eerie.
So are the stromotolites of Hamelin Pool. Discovered in 1954 by a group of surprised geologists, stromotolites are described as living rocks that occur only 2 other known places in the world–the Bahamas and the Persian Gulf. The world’s oldest organisms, they grow vvvvveeeerrrrryyyyy slowly. In 1,000 years they increase less than half an inch.
Not being a geologist, I couldn’t fully understand or appreciate the importance of this scientific find. These brown rocks looked to me like what a prehistoric giant with diarrhea would leave behind as he waded in the water. So rather than try, I’ll just tell you what was on a posted sign: …oldest life forms on Earth… layered structures around for billions of years…first structures built by life form which produced oxygen so led the way for development of plant and animal life…3.5 billion years ago, the first living organism…blue green bacteria flourished and built colonies of stromatolites…” and so on. Another sign read, “When the tide is in, observe us closely. You may see our air bubbles.” But the tide wasn’t in (see picture above of stromatolies) and we were limited to a boardwalk well over them. After mere seconds, most of the tourists were busy having their pictures taken with their heads stuck through one of those boards with a hole where the face would be. On a scientific value scale, stromatolites would be off the chart. On a visually compelling scale, they would barely register.