Dirk Hartog Island

Discovering Australia

There is no other place in Australia where so many navigators—Dutch, French and British—are known to have landed and left material evidence of their visits prior to British settlement of Western Australia. A 620 square km ‘staging post’ for early explorers and seafarers, Dirk Hartog Island is a continuation of the belt of Tamala limestone that extends along the western coast of Australia. It is Western Australia’s biggest island and the westernmost point of Australia.

Its extraordinary natural heritage values are included in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area. The unique flora and fauna and geological formations are protected within one million square kilometres of marine and terrestrial parks and reserves. There is no surface fresh water and vegetation is predominantly low eucalypts, acacias and grass areas set against a backdrop of rugged gorges, ochre-red cliff lines, coral reefs and pristine beaches.

But its claim to fame is the significant role Dirk Hartog Island has played in the European exploration and discovery of Australia.

The Dutch were the first to land here, the skipper whose name it bears having visited on 25 October 1616. Sailing from the Netherlands in Eendracht, Dirk Hartog landed at Cape Inscription at the northern end of the island where he had erected a post to which was nailed a dish inscribed with details of his two-day visit. As a result, a part of western Australia’s coastline appeared on world maps for the first time and the transition from Terra Australis Incognita to Australia was in progress.

After reconnaissance by many ships of the United Dutch East India Company, French and British explorers surveyed in greater detail in the 18th and 19th centuries. During what could be called the Dutch period, William Dampier first landed at what is now known as Cape Leveque in 1688. Returning to the west coast in 1699, he named Sharks Bay (Shark Bay) after landing on the northwestern side of the island now known as Dampier’s Landing. His collection of local plants is still preserved at Oxford University in England.

Two years before Dampier’s second visit, Dutchman Willem de Vlamingh replaced Hartog’s dish with his own dish after spending 18 days exploring Shark Bay; naming the Edel Land peninsula Steyle Hoek (Steep Promontory) and Dorre Island (named after Pieter Dorre the pilot of Eendracht) and Koks Islet, south of Bernier Island.


Portrait of Louis Francois Marie Aleno de Saint Aloüarn.
Portrait of Louis François Marie Aleno de Saint Aloüarn.
Reproduced courtesy Monsieur Tugdual de Kerros, France. 

In 1772, Frenchman Louis François Marie Aleno de Saint Aloüarn laid formal claim to the territory on behalf of France by burying, at nearby Turtle Bay, two coins embedded in the cap of a bottle along with an annexation claim on a parchment that is thought to have been inserted in the bottle. The coins and bottle were found in 1998.

In 1801 Jacques Félix Emmanuel Hamelin left evidence of his visit and in 1822, British navigator Phillip Parker King also left a record when he and his second in command lieutenant John Septimus Roe spelled out their names using nails hammered into Hamelin's post (now housed at the WA Museum). In 1858, Henry Mangles Denham charted the island and Shark Bay for Admiralty charts of the area.

The WA Museum has jurisdiction over the inscription posts site and St Aloüarn’s landing site, both of which are protected under the Western Australian Maritime Archaeology Act 1973.

Recent history

Dirk Hartog Island was run as a sheep station from the 1860s. Pearlers frequented the area and as maritime traffic increased along the coast, work commenced on building a lighthouse at Cape Inscription in 1908. In 1907, during a preliminary survey for the lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper’s quarters, Hamelin’s posts were removed and replaced with new timber posts with commemorative plaques. A jetty at Turtle Bay and a tramway were built and used to transport supplies and equipment to the lighthouse, which the Commonwealth took over in 1915.

The jetty was destroyed during a storm in 1937, though the tramway remained in place in the mid-1950s and remains of the tramline are still visible today between Turtle Bay and the lighthouse.

In 1938, the Australian Government affixed a plaque to the lighthouse commemorating Hartog’s landing, including a translation of his original inscription. The lighthouse itself is built of reinforced concrete made using shells and sand from the beach below it. The tower is 16.3m high to the vane and 10.4m to the gallery, which is 5.4m in diameter and 37m above the high water mark. The quarters were built to accommodate two families, but the building was abandoned when the lighthouse was automated in 1917.

The lighthouse and quarters were listed on the Register of the National Estate in March 1978 and on the Heritage Council of Western Australia’s Register of Heritage Places in August 2001.

A new national park was created on Dirk Hartog Island in November 2009, covering almost the entire area of the 63,000 hectare island, and opening it up to tourists under carefully managed sustainable tourism arrangements.

A number of conservation programmes to protect the region’s unique biodiversity and natural and cultural heritage values are underway, funded by the State and Commonwealth Governments, including a ‘Return to 1616’ programme involving returning the island's ecology to how Dirk Hartog would have seen it back in 1616. ‘Project Eden’ is a conservation project that aims to turn back the tide of extinction and ecological destruction in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area.

What’s in a name?

Shark Bay today bears the names of many of the explorers who visited since Dutch seafarer Dirk Hartog and the crew of the Eendracht landed at Cape Inscription in 1616. The majority of these names are associated with the Baudin expedition of 1801–1803 in the ships Géographe and Naturaliste. Shark Bay’s central peninsula bears the name of biologist François Péron who was responsible for writing up the voyage of discovery after Baudin’s death in 1803. Louis de Freycinet, a senior officer on Géographe, completed the account after Péron died in 1810.

  • Bernier Island is named after Géographe’s astronomer Pierre François Bernier.

  • Faure Island, after Naturaliste’s astronomer Pierre Faure.

  • Cape Levillain at the north-east point of Dirk Hartog Island is named after zoologist Stanislas Levillain, who died on the Naturaliste.

  • Lharidon Bight, after Dr François-Etienne Lharidon de Cremenec, a surgeon on Géographe.

  • Cape Lesueur after Charles Alexandre Lesueur, an artist on the expedition who later became the first director of the Museum of Natural History at Le Havre.

  • Petit Point, after Nicolas-Martin Petit, another artist.

  • Henri Freycinet Harbour, after Louis de Freycinet’s older brother.

  • Hamelin Pool after the captain of the Naturaliste, Jacques Félix Emmanuel Hamelin.

  • Useless Inlet was originally named ‘Havre Inutile’ or ‘Useless Harbour’ by Baudin to warn navigators of the sandbank blocking the small harbour.

The one person whose name is almost missing from the area is Nicolas Baudin himself. Unpopular with the scientific members of his expedition, particularly Péron who, after Baudin’s death on the voyage back to France, had the task of writing up the voyage. Baudin was also disliked by Freycinet who, following Péron’s death, completed the account of the Baudin voyage. Thus, Baudin was ‘honoured’ by having two tiny rocky islands smothered with bird droppings named after him—one off Tasmania and the other in Shark Bay.

Freycinet returned to Shark Bay in 1818 in L’Uranie. He named the eastern side of Peron Peninsula Cape Rose, after his wife who had sailed with him contrary to French naval regulations. In 1834, the Dutch schooner Monkey under Captain Walter Pace was sent to Shark Bay to investigate reports of wreckage near the Murchison River. Monkey Mia, where today thousands of people come to see Shark Bay’s dolphins, was named after the bay where he anchored, Mia being an Aboriginal word for ‘home’.

A detailed survey of Shark Bay was completed by Captain Henry Mangles Denham during his visit in 1858. The town of Denham and Denham Channel are named after him. Denham also inscribed Herald, his ship’s name, into the cliff face at Eagle Bay, a section of which was relocated to Pioneer Park after it collapsed into the ocean. He named Pelican, Smith, Egg and Wilds Islands. Salutation Island was named after a friendly encounter with Aborigines. He drew on the difficulties he faced trying to negotiate the shallow waters of Shark Bay with the names Hopeless Reach, Disappointment Loop and Disappointment Reach. Other names included Herald Bight (after his ship), Hutchison Island, Red Cliff Bay, Quoin Bluff and South Passage.