The area was the first part of the Australian mainland discovered by European sailors (see Cape Inscription for a detailed history of the Dutch exploration of the area). After the Dutch came William Dampier who wrote in his successful book A Voyage to New Holland that it 'Twas the 7th of August when we came into Shark's Bay; in which we Anchor'd at three several Places, and stay'd at the first of them (on the W. side of the Bay) till the 11th. During which time we searched about, as I said, for fresh Water, digging Wells, but to no purpose.' Dampier wasn't experiencing a drought year. Even today the area around Shark Bay receives such a low rainfall that the fresh water at Denham comes from a desalination plant. There are strict controls on the consumption of water in the town with threats that excessive use of fresh water will incur penalties. The penalty: to pay the full price for the desalination.
After Dampier came the Frenchmen Freycinet, Hamelin and Baudin who passed through the area in the early 1800s. They discovered the Geographe Channel which was named after Baudin's ship and, over the period from 1801-1818 visited the area three times. The dryness of the landscape and the obvious lack of water did little to create any real French enthusiasm for the region. The coast remained uninhabited by Europeans until the mid-nineteenth century. In 1858 Shark Bay was chartered by Captain H.M. Denham - the town is named in his honour.
Around this time F.L. Von Bibra settled on Dirk Hartog Island and convicts briefly came to the area to dig guano (bird droppings). It was as a result of this that Lieutenant Helpman, who had been sent to the area to sort out the issue of convicts being used to dig guano, discovered the pearl shells which abounded in the bay.
In his book on Broome, Port of Pearls, Hugh Edwards writes of Denham 'The first pearls to be found in Western Australia were in Shark Bay in 1854 by a Lieutenant Helpman known as the 'Admiral of the Swan River Navy'.
'Excited by finding dense beds of the small oyster Pinctada radiata he applied for the sole concession to work the Shark Bay pearl beds.
'This was initially agreed to but a public outcry made the beds open to everyone. The technique of pearling had none of the romance and danger which was later associated with the pearling fleets which operated out of Broome. The pearl shells were dredged and put on the beach in what were called 'pogey-tubs' and left to rot. Eventually the shells fell open and the pearls, if there were any, dropped out. The smell of the 'pogey-tubs' was horrific. The experiment was short lived as the pearl beds were overfished early. The only interesting consequence was that Denham's streets achieved the unique distinction of being paved with pearl shells. In an extraordinary act of vandalism the local roads board put bitumen over the pearl shells in the 1960s thus destroying what could have been a remarkable tourist attraction.'