Feature by Simon Webster
Prepare your camera: the pink lakes of Western Australia have to be seen to be believed.
In late 2017, an Australian car advertisement showed a stressed executive choosing “the road not taken” and throwing his mobile phone into a lake so pink that it looked like someone must have tampered with the footage. But there was no need for special effects. The lake is natural and real, and you can find it in Western Australia.
The Kia commercial wasn’t the first shoot to make the most of the otherworldly setting. Hutt Lagoon, located on the Coral Coast, five-and-a-half hours’ drive north of Perth. In 2016, Australian supermodel Jennifer Hawkins was there for Australian department store Myer, while two years before that, fashion blog sensation Gary Pepper Girl was filming there for Lancôme.
“We had a Korean pop video filmed here just recently,” says Sam Hay, who owns and runs the nearby Port Gregory Caravan Park with her husband, Tim. “There have been heaps of ads made, and plenty of social media coverage… it reaches the far corners of the globe.”
Every time the lake makes a media appearance, a new wave of visitors arrives at this quiet corner of Western Australia. And understandably so, because once you’ve seen the pink lake on a screen, you have to see it in the flesh – just to prove that it’s real.
Lake Gregory, near Halls Creek
It's all about the algae
Hutt Lagoon’s striking pink colour is thanks to algae that live in the water, Dunaliella salina. When exposed to sunlight, the algae produces beta-carotene, the red pigment found in carrots and other vegies. Thanks to those colour-producing properties, the algae are farmed for use in cosmetics and supplements, and as a natural food dye.
The lagoon covers a whopping 70 square kilometres, tends to be at its pinkest in the mornings, and changes character according to the weather and the seasons.
“If it’s overcast it might look grey or silver,” says Hay. “Or it could go the other way, and the clouds could turn pink because of the reflection. Some days it’s so bright it’s almost purple.”
In summer, much of the lagoon dries out, and the remaining water tends to be a less vibrant pink. “It’s still beautiful in its own right, but it’s different,” Hay says.
The couple’s tours of Hutt Lagoon use a six-seater buggy to take guests over sand dunes for a high-vantage-point view of the lake and encounters with emus, kangaroos and lizards, as well as on a journey through “miles of wildflowers” in spring.
In summer, the tours drive over the dried-out sections of salt bed, and the buggy reveals its significant advantage over traditional 4WD vehicles: it doesn’t sink. “We do recovery mission after recovery mission of people who try and drive over the salt flats,” Hay says. She doesn’t recommend walking on the lake bed for precisely this reason. “It’s very salty and soft, and can be quite slimy.”
Hutt Lagoon, near Port Gregory
The bubblegum pink lake
Down off the coast at Esperance, another of Western Australia’s famous pink lakes can be found on Middle Island. Experts aren’t sure why Lake Hillier is bubblegum pink – some say it’s a matter of algae; others theorise that it’s a result of a bacteria found in the water. But unlike Hutt Lagoon, with its ever-changing nature, Lake Hillier maintains its vibrant shade all year round.
In 1802, when explorer Matthew Flinders first sighted the body of water, he noted it as “a small lake of a rose colour”. Maybe he was underselling it to try to keep people away. Because the island setting, which juxtaposes the bright pink lake with brilliant blue water, makes Lake Hillier utterly spectacular.
It’s possible to visit Middle Island by boat or helicopter. With Goodwin McCarthy Helicopters, you can land on the island and explore camp ruins once occupied by Black Jack Anderson, Australia’s only known pirate, who terrorised the waterways around these parts in the 1830s. The tour then moves on to the lake, though guests are not allowed too close to the water because of the potential impact of increasing tourist numbers on this unique environment.
Aerial view of Lake Hillier, Middle Island near Esperance
Robert Blok, Esperance district manager of the Parks and Wildlife Service, asks that if people want to set foot on Middle Island they do so only with licensed operators. “Biosecurity and the protecting the island’s fragile ecosystem are key areas of concern,” Blok explains.
If you’re not interested in exploring the island on foot, there is another option: seeing Lake Hillier from above. A scenic flight from Esperance with Goldfields Air Services will take you over the confusingly named Pink Lake on the mainland (which is usually pale blue and has disappointed more than a few visitors) before sweeping over the incredible coastline of Cape Le Grand National Park and out to the real pink lake – Lake Hillier – located on Middle Island.
“You get the contrast of the green of the island, the beautiful bubblegum pink of the lake and the aqua of the ocean,” Blok says. “It’s a fantastic perspective.”
Please note the pink colour of Lake Hillier is a natural phenomenon and cannot be guaranteed depending on the natural changes in the lake. When the lake is discoloured, scenic flights that usually operate over the area will instead take tourists over the amazing two-dozen pink and rainbow coloured lakes nestled amongst the farmland near Esperance.