Mystery of Australia’s Famous Strawberry-Colored Lake Hillier.

Lake Hillier has a complicated address: near the coast of Middle Island, in the Recherche Archipelago, to the south of Western Australia. But it’s not to be missed. A Royal Navy explorer came across its 600-meter-long, strawberry-coloured charm in 1802, and visitors to the lake have been thoroughly seduced ever since. Visiting, however, is not quite as easy as it used to be, as the lake is part of the Recherche Archipelago Nature Reserve, which is blanketed by a dense covering of Eucalyptus trees. It can be visited by special arrangement, but one needn’t bother with the bureaucracy as it’s arguably best seen from the air. Most scientists concur that the lake owes its compelling strawberry shade to a particular species of microalgae named “Dunaliella Salina,” or photosynthetic microorganisms that produce beta-carotene (the orange colour also found in carrots). This microalgae also loves salt, welcoming concentrations from 0.2 per cent all the way up to 35 per cent, hence its presence in the saltwater of Lake Hillier. The salt crusts of the Australian lake also contain significant quantities of halophilic (salt-loving) bacteria and archaea, microorganisms that also produce an orange, carrot-like pigment. Extreme Microbiome Project researchers have performed a “metagenomic analysis” of the lake and found a number of additional organisms that thrive in high-salt environments, most of them within the bacteria and algae families, including Salinibacter Ruber (a profusely red-coloured bacterium). Readers may be delighted to learn that Lake Hillier isn’t the only pink lake in the world. Lake Retba in Senegal is also a pink lake, frequented by local villagers wishing to harvest salt. During the dry season (between November and June), the pink colour shows off its densest pigment.
According to the official website, it is perfectly safe to swim in Lake Hillier. The water is clear, albeit pink, and harmless. From the air, the lake’s vivid pink hue sits in gorgeous, stark contrast with the surrounding deep green forests and the dense blue of the Indian Ocean. Helicopters and cruise ships can provide viewing opportunities from the shoreline, but an aspect of the outstanding colour contrast is lost from this perspective. Drinking the lake water, however, is strictly discouraged. Not only would it taste terrible, but drinking it would invite the potential for ingesting some truly unpleasant microorganisms. The high salt content in the bloodstream also puts a serious strain on the body’s innate ability to control sodium and chloride levels: dehydration quickly sets in. The British navigator and cartographer Matthew Flinders discovered the beautiful Lake Hillier at the very beginning of the 19th century. The explorer was working aboard the HMS Investigator, and in January of 1802, he climbed the highest peak of Middle Island, noting pleasantly in his log “a small lake of rose colour.” He named the lake “Hillier” in honour of ship’s crew member William Hillier, who died of dysentery aboard the vessel during the very same voyage. Flinders went on to describe the lake in greater detail: “…the water of which, as I was informed by Mr Thistle who visited it, was so saturated with salt that sufficient quantities were crystallized near the shores to load a ship.” Thistle, in fact, brought a specimen on board the ship which proved perfectly usable after drying. The crew opportunistically stocked up from the salt-crusted shores of the lake. Lake Hillier is no longer mined for salt, but it remains a major attraction. There’s no need to don rose-tinted glasses in order to appreciate the beauty and bounty of this saltwater spectacle.
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