‘I was left spinning in her wake’: When Tim Winton came eye-to-eye with a humpback whale
By Tim Winton
Tim Winton says those trying to protect natural Australia know that the system always favours big business. (Supplied)
I grew up in a whaling town and never saw a live one.
I witnessed plenty being hauled up the flensing deck at Frenchman’s Bay, near Albany. Watched them being butchered and boiled.
Saw their enormous viscera spill like a pink and purple landslip. And believe me, the sight of a sperm whale being decapitated with a steam-driven saw, that’s a spectacle that doesn’t fade with time.
It’s hard to believe such scenes and such an industry were once normal. But we only stopped doing this 40 years ago.
Last month was the anniversary and like most great environmental turning points, it was commemorated quietly, if at all.
Malcolm Fraser’s other environmental achievements include protecting the Great Barrier Reef from oil drilling and stopping sand mining on Fraser Island. (National Archives)
But the milestone is important to me. Not just because I’m interested in whales, but because it marks how much this country has changed in my lifetime.
In 1978, in response to a public outcry, then prime minister Malcolm Fraser put an end to whaling in Australia.
New laws were written that set us on a new course and ever since Australia has been a global voice in whale and dolphin protection. A huge step forward for our oceans and for our culture.
Forty years on, this historic change of heart has an impact on ordinary people. You may have seen some of them at a headland or a clifftop this winter watching the annual humpback migration.
The sight of swimming giants mightn’t put food on the table, but it sure gladdens the heart.
The recovering humpback whale population is one of the great conservation success stories of our era.
Role reversal, whale in control
Today, if you live on the coast, you can see more whales in 10 minutes than a boy like me saw in years. I’m not exaggerating.
Humpback whales swim close to the shore at Exmouth, Western Australia. (ABC Open contributor Vinnie Preston)
I was in the water with a humpback last winter. I’d been out paddle-boarding. She was a big female, and very curious. Also a bit of a lead-foot. When she came in to check me out she made a bow wave, and she went by so quick I was left turning circles in the water, hanging onto my board.
Then she did a U-turn and repeated the procedure, closer in. Again, I was left spinning in her wake.
Then she got personal. Really close. This time, thankfully, with the throttle backed off, so she was slow and steady, which was reassuring, but she’d come in so tight my heart rate went up and my teeth tingled. Like, uh-oh.
By the time she drew level with me I could have touched her. Her eye was right there at my eye level. Very, very close. And this was all rather exciting. In a pooping-yourself sort of way.
But then I’m thinking. Pecs. (Hers, not mine.) As in, what’s she going to do with her pectoral fins? They’re like wings. Five metres long. Literally weigh a tonne. The leading edge is all knobbly and barnacled. Like something a Viking would use as a negotiating tool.
She can crank them down. So that’s what I’m banking on. Because if she doesn’t pull that nearside fin in, if she goes past with it horizontal the way she has the other times, she’ll break me in half. And now I’m wondering if this was such a good idea.
So, what happened? Well, at the last moment she makes a teeny adjustment. She doesn’t pull her wing in the way I’ve been praying she would. No. She lifts it. A second before her giant fin mows me down, she hauls it out of the water. As if she’s about to swat me. And the sky disappears, and I have this enormous appendage, like an aircraft wing, going across me, a metre overhead. Water’s streaming off it, onto me, and I’m yelling madly, and that big old girl goes silently past and just keeps on going.
I paddled home in a mood best described as elevated.
This could all be lost
As I said, this scene couldn’t have happened when I was younger. There just weren’t enough whales left in our oceans to make it possible.
Encounters like this can only happen today because new laws were written 40 years ago. And new norms were born.
The whales I’m lucky enough to swim with congregate every winter in WA’s north at Exmouth Gulf, near Ningaloo Reef.
They’re protected. But the waterway they take refuge in has almost no protection.
As well as the whales, the gulf is a haven for endangered dugongs, turtles, manta rays and migratory birds. It supports 850 species of fish.
A school of juvenile golden trevally seeks shelter with a manta ray on Ningaloo Reef. (ABC Open contributor Peter Wandmaker)
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says it has World Heritage values. We call it Ningaloo’s Nursery. But it’s wide open to industrialisation.
A multinational called Subsea 7 wants to build a gas pipeline facility there. This proposal is currently before the West Australian Environmental Protection Authority. And I can tell you, I’m deeply worried about the outcome. And just as concerned about the process.
There are many thousands of Australians who feel the same way. About the Murray-Darling, for instance. Or fracking. Or the state of Macquarie Harbour. They’re despondent. Enraged. And crying out for change.
Because experience has taught these citizens that when it comes to defending the places they love, every step of the process is weighted in favour of the corporation. Planning is often a closed-door affair, as it has been at Exmouth Gulf.
Access to information is wildly unequal. So is access to every level of Government. Massive differences in financial capacity mean access to legal advice is similarly unequal.
‘Business as usual’ kills us
Our Prime Minister likes things to be “fair dinkum”. And the ALP is out campaigning for “The Fair Go”. But for the patriot defending nature, the process isn’t fair dinkum and there is no fair go.
Our current environmental laws aren’t working. Not for the environment. Nor for the citizens who depend on it.
Our national emergencies are ample proof. We face a mammal extinction crisis. We have desperate problems with water management, land-clearing and soil degradation. The nation has no climate policy. And the world’s greatest coral reef could die on our watch.
Environmental activists are constantly fighting for information, funds and legal advice. (ABC News: Phoebe Hosier)
Back at Exmouth Gulf, yet another natural wonder may be surrendered to the fossil fuel industry. Which will look like business as usual.
But it needn’t be that way. Because out amongst the humpbacks and the sponges and corals there are great legacies to defend. Legacies emblematic of our progress, the moments when we stepped up and moved on together.
A Liberal PM stopped whaling. And it was a Labor premier, Geoff Gallop, who famously drew “a line in the sand” at Ningaloo to acknowledge that some ecosystems are too important for business as usual.
We can build on these historic leaps forward. Secure them with stronger laws. More equitable processes. More responsive agencies. We must move our culture upward again. Beyond business as usual.
Because business as usual is killing our country, weakening our communities and robbing our children. Business as usual is not fair dinkum. Nor is it giving this country a fair go.
I know what it’s like to be subject, for a moment, to something mighty. Spared by a force of nature that owed me nothing. But the natural world is now at our mercy. And we owe it our very existence.
It’s time to reform our laws to protect it.
Tim Winton is an Australian writer and environmental advocate. He is the patron of the Australian Marine Conservation Society and the Protect Ningaloo campaign and this is an excerpt from a speech he is giving at a forum on environmental law reform organised by the Places You Love Alliance in association with the Labor Environment Action Network tomorrow.