Australia’s Unexpected Jurassic Park
130 million years of history are fossilised in the coastal flats around Broome. The prints are the most diverse and abundant on the planet, and the area is fast becoming known as “Australia’s Jurassic Park.”
To explore the biggest and best-preserved collection of dinosaur footprints on Earth, there’s only one thing to do: clamber inside a canary-yellow hovercraft and glide across the exposed mudflats of Roebuck Bay near Broome at low tide. Your guide on this one-hour expedition to what scientists have dubbed “Australia’s Jurassic Park”? Local expert, Myles Penegar.
For Myles, the business is a family concern. “My parents-in-law June and Roger bought the hovercraft business 13 years ago,” he says, “– so I married into it! My background is in science – physics and maths. I was about to become a teacher, but then I met their daughter Rebecca…”
Fast-forward a decade: Myles and Bec were working for a pharmaceutical company in Perth, had kids, horses and a house. Then the opportunity to buy into the family hovercraft business presented itself, and Broome beckoned. “If you’d told me when I was 12 years old that at 42 I’d be flying a hovercraft to see dinosaur footprints, I might not have believed you!”, says Myles.
Formal scientific research began in the 1940s after some Girl Guides went to Gantheaume Point, where they spied some triple-toe footprints. The Guides then contacted the Western Australian Museum who scheduled a field trip to Broome. They found the triple-toe tracks, but also recognised large circular footprints made by giant sauropods. “Lots of different experts have been here from all around the world,” says Myles. “Over the past 10 years it’s really increased: they’ve identified 21 varieties of dinosaur footprints over about 100km of coastline here – more than anywhere else on the planet.”
Of course, local Aboriginal people have known about the dinosaur footprints for millennia. “The Yawuru people have been talking about the footprints for thousands of years,” says Myles. “Specifically, the triple-toe footprints of Megalosauropus broomensis, as the scientists have termed it. But the Yawuru talked about them as ‘Emu Man’ or ‘Marala’ – one of the Dreamtime creators, walking the land.”
The Shifting Sands of Time
When Broome’s geology was created – between 120 and 140 million years ago, ‘Australia’ as we know it was part of the vast Gondwana supercontinent. Broome was much further south than it is now and was considerably cooler; and into the cold mud stepped the dinosaurs.
“The prints were made in the ground,” Myles explains. “Then sand and dust blew in over those holes and slowly solidified. The pindan earth slowly drifted in from the east, covering the footprints and compacting and encasing them. But because the prints had been filled in, they held their shape. Then slowly the surface soil started to recede, pushed back by the wind – 1m to 2m per hundred years, until the footprints were revealed.”
“If any major earth movement had come over more quickly,” Myles continues, “it would have disrupted the prints, and you wouldn’t be able to recognise or interpret them now. Drumheller in Canada is probably the best place in the world for dinosaur bones, but they don’t have many footprints because of a quicker earth movement over the top of them – so what’s here is quite unique.”
Location, Location, Location
Broome’s Roebuck Bay is famous for its giant tidal range. “Roebuck Bay is very shallow,” says Myles. “The way the land slopes allows the tide to come in faster than it would in other areas, and the tide, low to high, travels 15km.”
To sidestep these dramatic tides and discover the bay’s legendary dinosaur footprints, you need a local expert. “They’re not easy to find,” says Myles. “At high tide it’s all completely covered; and at low tide it’s too far away for a boat to get in there. So, it works beautifully for us – to be able to just zip in there with the hovercraft. The area we access is also sacred ground, so we have special permission to go there.”
Interested in more memorable experiences? Check out these five Kimberley treasures a short trip from Broome.