Blue wonder on Dirk Hartog Island

Travelling Well | Bruce Newton | Posted on 17 October 2017

Whale-watching is just one of the attractions of Western Australia’s biggest island.

“Look,” I shout excitedly, pointing at the same time. “Do you see the whale?”

There, just off Cape Inscription, the northern tip of Dirk Hartog Island, a humpback – no, two humpbacks – are cavorting, blowing vapour, slapping their tails and rolling to and fro.

My friends, who had arrived a few minutes earlier, look at me wearily.

“Yes, we see those whales … and those … and those … and those.”

aerial shot of person swimming in turtle bay off dirk harthod island

Turtle Bay.

humpback whale tail popping out of the ocean

Humpback whales.

It’s true. Scanning the sea, I realise it’s impossible not to see humpbacks patrolling the Indian Ocean, in pairs or even threesomes. Frequently huge splashes of water mark the spot where one of these behemoths had moments before launched itself out of the water.

We had come to Inscription Point and the island, on the outer side of Shark Bay 850 kilometres north of Perth, for its history. It’s Western Australia’s largest island and the nation’s most westerly point. It’s also the first place where evidence of European presence in Australia was left, when Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog made landfall in October 1616. He left an inscribed pewter plate at the site and sailed on. Today a replica of that plate is on display, along with one left by another Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh, who visited the island in 1697.

So we’ve made the two-and-a-half-hour journey north from our base, the Dirk Hartog Island Eco Lodge, to see those pewter plates and stand as far west on this great continent as possible.

It’s not only whales, you’ve got your sharks, your dugongs, your turtles. It’s amazing.

But we’ve stayed far longer than expected, gobsmacked by the number of whales cavorting before us. It’s August and out there it’s busier than the Monash Freeway at peak hour. The humpbacks are migrating south but they certainly don’t seem to be in any hurry. They just look like they are having so much fun.

“The marine life is just incredible,” says island resident Kieran Wardle. “It’s not only whales, you’ve got your sharks, your dugongs, your turtles. It’s amazing.”

He’s not kidding. The next day at Surf Point at the southern end of the island we find hundreds of small reef sharks swimming within a metre or so of the water’s edge. Some people are comfortably walking out among them, the shy creatures scattering when approached.

Kieran, the bundle of energy who runs the Eco Lodge and camping ground, is the third generation of Wardles to be involved with Dirk Hartog Island. His grandfather Sir Thomas, a supermarket tycoon and former lord mayor of Perth, took over the 100-year pastoral lease for the island in 1968. Back then it was a sheep farm, grazing 20,000 merinos.

cape peron on a clear day

Cape Peron.

vast sand dunes on dirk harthog island with sun flare

Sand dunes.

Since then there’s been massive change. The sheep are gone, feral cats, goats and foxes have been eradicated and the leasehold exchanged for a few small parcels of freehold land. The island is a national park and on the World Heritage List.

“It’s a really unique situation where we have tourism accommodation in the middle of a national park on a World Heritage island,” Kieran explains. “We are trying to leverage eco-tourism to show people what this amazing place is about.”

By the time you read this 12 native rare and endangered mammal species will have been introduced to the island to breed as part of a Department of Parks and Wildlife project dubbed Return To 1616.

“The island is becoming an ark for endangered animals,” Kieran says. “They are being bred to repopulate the mainland if anything ever goes wrong. It’s an awesome project.”

Then there is the sheer spectacle of the place. In the east, beaches dissolve into crystal-clear water while in the west huge swells smash into the high cliff faces. In the centre of the island, waves of sand dunes give spectacular views in all directions.

Be aware that if you want to bring your own vehicle, it must be a proper 4x4, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk that we brought, because the isolated mainland barge pick-up spot at Steep Point is many kilometres from the nearest tarred road.

Once on the island, your 4x4 will also be very useful getting out to all those wonderful sites. The trails are corrugated, mostly sandy and in places they are interspersed with limestone rock gardens.

If that all sounds a bit gung-ho, then you can get to the island by charter plane or tourist boat.

However you make the journey, there’s no doubting you’ll find it a special place. No wonder the whales hang around.