We were driving in from the North West Coastal Highway two days before our departure from Denham and we passed a sign on the side of the road that simply said ‘STROMATALITES”. I asked Gayle whether she knew what a stromatalite was and she said she had no idea. I knew I had heard the term before but I couldn’t recall what they were; I suspected they might be a technical term for some cave hanging feature like Stalactites but my only solution was to google the term. Wikipedia gave me the following definition… “Stromatalites are layered sedimentary formations that are created by photosynthetic cyanobateria. These microorganisms produce adhesive compounds that cement sand and other rocky materials to form mineral ‘microbial mats’. In turn, these mats build up layer by layer, growing gradually over time.” (I was not even close, not caves but sea floors!) These ‘sedimentary formations’ sounded interesting so when the next road sign appeared pointing to the Hamelin Pool Caravan Park, I suggested we drop in on our way back from Denham…and so we did. (Map: Courtesy: https://www.sharkbay.org)
European Sheep Farmers took up leases in the area around Hamelin Pool in the early 1900s. Wool was shipped out through Hamelin Pool well before trucks and trains became a cheaper form of transport. Today there is an old general store and the original 1884 Telegraph Station making up the main buildings that surround today’s small caravan park servicing this area now that growing wool is no longer a viable industry in the region.
The information board above gives the general outline of what a tourist can see on this site today, starting with the Caravan Park, the walk to the shell quarry and onto the stromatalite boardwalk which is presumably where the original wharf for wool exporting was. The tourist can than walk back through the bush to the car park near the Telegraph Station.
There was something slightly curious about this Hamelin Pool tourist spot that had me puzzled. The thing that first started to concern me was the quality of the advertising sign outside the garden gate of the main house that contained a shop. The sign promised an “experienced guide”, a short documentary about stromatalites and an aquarium display. We may have not inquired hard enough but none of these services appeared to be readily available. The damage to the sign seemed to indicate that it was very old and perhaps the owners of the property had become dispirited in pushing the excitement of the presence of stromatalites on their property! There was a hole in the sign where the word “life” seemed to have been damaged; perhaps a fundamentalist bible interpreter was offended by the claim that the stromatalites were the “earliest evidence of life on earth.”
From the Telegraph Station we followed the vague signs that led us to the Hamelin Pool section of Shark Bay. Before we reached the water’s edge, we walked through the Shell Quarry where the Cockle shells, like at Shell Beach, had been building up for thousands of years and turning into stone. From around 1900, locals began building their sheds and houses from blocks of compressed shell that were sawn out of this quarry. It is from here that the blocks that made up the Old Pearler Restaurant in Denham were sourced. If a heritage building is repaired in Shark Bay, the stones will be cut here and transported to the appropriate site. This quarry can only be used to repair heritage buildings, not new ones.
If we were using the map from the information board printed earlier in this blog, from the quarry we were meant to walk through the dunes above the beach and read the information board about the First people in the area. The trail and its purpose weren’t quite clear to us and we assumed that we just needed to keep walking and we would arrive at the section of Hamelin Pool where the Stromatalites were hiding. To be honest, we had not yet really understood what these underwater formations were going to look like.
We could see what looked like a board walk in the distance and so we presumed that that was where we were meant to go. We had nearly arrived when we met a lady not far from the boardwalk who decided we looked like people who could be complained to. She said to us, “I came, I saw and I was very dissatisfied!” She then walked off. I felt like apologising to her for the failure of the site to not only show her stromatalites but also to explain what she was looking at.
Before we checked out the board-walk, it was time to check the information boards. The first one told us that… “The ground here is alive and growing. It is covered with microbial mats, communities of microscopic life forms. In certain conditions the communities trap particles and create stone. When this happens, microbial mats become microbialites. Sometimes microbialites form taller layered structures called stromatolites.” This information was accompanied by the diagrams in the image to the left explaining I believe that flat, brown, broken rocks were microbialites and taller, chimney like structures were stromatalites. What we saw in the shallow water in front of us are captured in the two photos below
There was another information board nearby that is presented on the right. By this stage I was convinced that if we were seeing stromatalites, they should be at least significantly taller than cow pats. If this is the case, we saw no stromatalites in this area of Hamelin Pool. There certainly were no structures that looked like the taller structures we could see in the diagrams but I was still trying to mentally defend this out of the way tourist site against the grumpy criticism of the lady we had met a little earlier. However I stopped trying to defend it when I had a good look at the boardwalk in front of us that I assumed was meant to take us for a walk above the growing ‘stromatalites.’
Perhaps I was wrong in assuming that it was a tourist facility to showcase ancient structures that may be the missing link needed to explain how life on earth developed back in the long ago day. Perhaps the broken-down boardwalk was just a left over from the old days of bales of wool shipments. The boardwalk had a flimsy tape across the entryway urging folk not to walk on it…even this sign failed to convince anybody. This facility was a workplace health and safety disaster waiting for an extremely careless visitor to put a foot in the wrong place. All in all, it looked like a tourist attraction where the proprietors had lost interest and closed it down without telling the visitors.
The one bright spot on our walk was the sight of this gorgeous bird here enjoying the facilities.
When I was coming to visit Shark Bay, I knew it was a World Heritage designated area for many reasons. One of these reasons was the saline chemistry of the waters in places like Hamelin Pool and Shell Beach and the fascinating creatures that inhabited these harsh environments. This particular tourist stop had let the Shark Bay team down. We were lucky when we got to Cervantes much further down the coast of Western Australia where we encountered the stromatalite story again at Lake Thetis; this time in a situation where these amazing formations were presented in a beautiful, well cared for environment that was a pleasure to visit.