Perth - The Gateway to Western Australia; Part 2
Further south is the second most famous area of the Western Australia Coast – Shark Bay, a world heritage area which contains the world’s largest single population of Dugongs (sea cows). Out on the peninsula is Denham, Monkey Mia and the Francois Peron National Park, but about 50km into the area lies Hamelin Pool.
Hamelin Pool is one of only two places in the world with living marine stromatolites, or "living fossils" and also has the distinction of being Western Australia's only marine nature reserve. It covers over 132,000 hectares and protects the earths oldest life form.
Hamelin Pool was once home to a telegraph station which relayed messages from the south to the north where they were eventually passed on to Asia and even further down the line, one assumes, to England. It has also been home to a very important little life form for hundreds of millions of years and unlike the telegraph station, which has been turned into a museum, the humble stromatolites still carry on their work.
To the casual observer, stromatolites are possibly the most boring thing on earth. They are, basically, living rocks but what they did, is make the atmosphere suitable for the evolution of life. They look like rocky lumps strewn around the beach but are actually built by living organisms too small for the human eye to see. Within the structures are communities of diverse inhabitants with population densities of 3000 million individuals per square metre! Billions of years ago, stromatolites covered most of the surface of the earth, which was of course almost entirely under water at that time. They are formed by cyanobacteria, which are single-celled blue-green bacteria. They create oxygen by means of photosynthesis, much like the algae and plants of today. The organisms use sediment and organic material to build stromatolites up to 1.5 metres high - up to 10 million times their size. Because they grow very slowly, a metre-high stromatolite could be about 2000 million years old. Fossilized remains of these stromatolites have been found all over the world for as long as archeology can remember but the discovery of live stromatolites in 1956 were the first growing examples ever recorded.
Stromatolites are able to survive in the area because Hamelin Pool's water is twice as saline as normal sea water and sea grasses and many other forms of life cannot survive there. This doesn’t bother the stromatolites but it deters all but the hardiest creatures, which creates a safe-haven for the cyanobacteria to photosynthesize away all the while cementing their rock sculptures millimeter by painstaking millimeter. They are slow to recover from being damaged and to this day, the stromatolite mats in Hamelin Pool show tracks made by camel-drawn carts in the late 19th and early 20th century and it will take many more years for those scars to be fully healed.
A wooden boardwalk at Hamelin Pool allows people to view the stromatolites without damaging them. It incorporates informative panels that give visitors a fascinating insight into the formation and lifestyle of the stromatolites and is a good way to find out about the beginnings of life on Earth.
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