In 1803, French explorer Louis de Freycinet, captain of the Casuarina, named the island Île Pelée (Bald Island). It was also known as Île Lévilian and later Île Berthelot. In 1827, James Stirling changed its name to Pulo Carnac Island in honour of John Rivett Carnac, Second Lieutenant on his ship HMS Success. "Pulo" is Malay for "Island"; it is not known why Stirling included the term, and it was soon dropped.
From 1836 to 1837, the island served as a whaling station. The whalers transported Perth's first church to the island to be used as a storehouse. It was abandoned within a few years.
From October to November 1838, the island was declared by the Swan River Colony colonial government to be a prison for indigenous Australians. The prison consisted of two guards, an overseer named RM Lyon, and three prisoners named Yagan, Danmera, and Ningina. The solitary conditions resulted in the soldiers assisting the prisoners' escape in a stolen government stores boat.
In 1916, the Australian Federal Government assumed control over the island for defence purposes, and the island was transferred back to the State of Western Australia in 1961.
The island is home to Australian sea lions, bottlenose dolphins and a large range of marine bird life. New Zealand fur seals are frequent visitors. Rabbits inhabited the island in abundance from 1827 to 1897, but were eradicated in 1969. It is particularly noted for the abundance of snakes, particularly tiger snakes, which live there. The island is densely populated with up to three tiger snakes in every 25 square metres (270 square feet). For this reason, very few people venture away from the beach.
There is no permanent fresh water, providing a challenge for the animals that live there. The origins of the tiger snake colony has attracted significant debate (one theory is that in 1929, a man named Lindsay "Rocky" Vane dumped his tiger snake collection on the island, after snake exhibitions were banned in Western Australia) and research into how that species has adapted to a harsh island habitat. King skinks also inhabit the island, and there is evidence of confrontation between king skinks and tiger snakes.
In November 2006, naturalist David Attenborough visited the island with a BBC film crew to record a reptile documentary, in which Attenborough provided commentary on the blindness of many of the island's tiger snakes. This is caused by birds defending their chicks by pecking at the snakes' eyes. These blind snakes survive and thrive, relying upon scent and eating immobile prey such as seabird chicks. Carnac Island is the only place where this has been observed. Male tiger snakes largely out-number female tiger snakes on the island, which is another curiosity of the island's tiger snake colony.
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- X. Bonnet, D. Pearson, M. Ladyman, O. Lourdais, Don Bradshaw. "'Heaven' for serpents A mark-recapture study of tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus) on Carnac Island, Western Australia (Australian Ecology 27, 2002)". University of Western Australia Research Depository. Retrieved 21 July 2017.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- "IBA: Carnac Island". Birdata. Birds Australia. Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-06-13.
- Carnac Island Nature Reserve : management plan [Perth, W.A.] : The Commission, 2003. Management plan (Western Australia. Dept. of Conservation and Land Management) ; no. 47