A Detours & Diversions piece about the stromatolites in Shark Bay, WA, the earth’s oldest living organisms.


You Say Stromato
Stromatolites in Shark Bay, WA

Some life forms are inherently interesting. Monkeys, for example, are always up to tricks. Penguins can’t help but be comical. Ditto otters. Stromatolites, however, are the natural world’s equivalent of the guy from Accounts you’ve given up trying to worm a conversation out of.

No matter how much you try to jazz it up, the buggers just aren’t going to leap through hoops of fire, fetch sticks or dance amusingly for tourists. They just sit there, all day long, filtering air. But while they’re about as interesting to watch as an all-mime version of Dances With Wolves, they’re fascinating in other ways. Made up of single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria, they’ve been around for 3.5 billion years. In fact, they’re the oldest living things on Earth, and without them we probably wouldn’t be here. Thought by some scientists to be the first life on the planet, stromatolites have played a huge part in creating an atmosphere we can survive in. They form oxygen as a waste product, and if they didn’t, Homo sapiens wouldn’t have gotten a look-in.

Until 1956, scientists thought they no longer existed. Fossilised examples had been found in old rocks, but none still alive. That was the year that millions of living stromatolites were found in the Hamelin Pools of Shark Bay in WA. More have since been found in the Bahamas, but the extremely salty water of Hamelin Pools has allowed this ancient life to survive undetected. They’re the main reason Shark Bay is World Heritage-listed, and while they don’t exactly entertain, such history has an incredibly mesmerising quality.


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A viewing platform, boardwalk and information about the Hamelin Pools stromatolites can be found 105 kms from Denham in Shark Bay. Denham is 842 kms north of Perth, and Hamelin Pools is on the way. Try the Shark Bay office of the Department of Conservation And Land Management on (08) 9948 1208 to find out more.

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