Lake Hillier is notable for its high salt content and its Pepto Bismol shade of pink, reports Ken Jennings.
The big idea behind these “Maphead” posts—the raison d’etre, if you will—is to sniff out geographical oddities. These are places that are somehow unique or weird on the map, often more interesting than they are in real life. But when it comes to Australia’s Lake Hillier, that all depends on what kind of map you’re looking at. In the pages of an atlas, it’s a pretty boring blue oval on an equally boring little island. But look at Lake Hillier on a digital map, and you won’t believe your eyes. In aerial imagery, Lake Hillier is colored a bilious, Pepto-Bismol shade of pink.
Lake Hillier’s island was undiscovered until 1802.
Off the southern coast of Western Australia is a chain of islands called the Recherche Archipelago. The largest of them, Middle Island, is an uninhabited nature preserve covered in dense eucalyptus forest. The islands were first mapped by Matthew Flinders, a British explorer who captained the HMS Investigator. In January 1802, Flinders went ashore and climbed to the island’s highest peak, which is today named for him.
A rosy outlook for Captain Flinders.
Off to the northeast, he was surprised to see “a small lake of a rose colour,” as he recorded in his log. He named the unusual lake for William Hillier, a crewman who died of dysentery while the Investigator was docked at Middle Island. Investigating further, the crew discovered that the pink lake was almost as salty as the Dead Sea, and they supplied their ship with heaps of salt from its shores.
Lake Hillier isn’t the world’s only pink lake.
Lake Retba, on the coast of Senegal, shares Lake Hillier’s chromatic weirdness. For many years, it was the finish line for the famed Dakar Rally road race, and it’s still frequented by local villagers who harvest salt from the water there, their skin smeared with shea butter to keep it safe. Duinella salina, a species of red-pigmented algae, thrives in salty Lake Retba, lending it its unusual color, and scientists believe that same algae is responsible for Lake Hillier’s similar bubble gum color.
Can you swim in Lake Hillier?
Lake Hillier’s color is best appreciated from the air, where it contrasts vividly with the lush surrounding forest. But travelers very occasionally get dropped off on Middle Island from helicopters tours or cruise ships, and they can attest that from the shore, the lake water looks more transparent but still very, very pink. Even in a glass or a bucket, the water’s pink hue remains. If you ever make it to Middle Island, pack a swimsuit and go for a dip in Lake Hillier. The pink water isn’t toxic, and thanks to its extreme salinity, you’ll bob like a cork. A cork in a bottle of pink, pink wine.