Chasing Whaling SHips from Sea Level

(First Posted Wednesday, November 28, 2007)

King George Sound, Albany, Western Australia. Copyright 2007 Jonny lewis

By Chris Pash
The Last Whale

Jonny Lewis was drowning in the raw beauty and power of the Southern Ocean. Initially, he couldn’t speak as he looked out across King George Sound, Western Australia, to the horizon. The immensity of that body of water overwhelmed him.

“We went out there?” Jonny said eventually. He couldn’t believe that thirty years ago he and his friends took an open boat south to the end of the world.

This was the first look he’d had since 1977 when he launched an outboard powered inflatable from Middleton Beach, Albany, at the start a 17 hour duel with a whale ship.

He turned to me and said: “We were mad.” The sea looked like it could swallow a 16 ft Zodiac inflatable in a moment and leave no trace.

I see this view every year when visiting Albany for Christmas and often think of Jonny and his friends in 1977. I expressed what I’d always thought. “It’s not something I would ever have done,” I said. “You guys were out there, on the edge, mad and magical at the same time.”

“I don’t think we even considered that,” Jonny said pointing to the ocean. “We were on a roll, bouncing off and egging on one another … we didn’t think.”

In 1977 Jonny Lewis and his crew formed the Whale and Dolphin Coalition (later to morph into Greenpeace Australia) in Sydney to take direct action against Australia’s last whaling station run by the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company.

A key figure was Frenchman Jean-Paul Fortom-Gouin, nicknamed the Phantom, who bankrolled the campaign and brought Canadian Bob Hunter, Greenpeace founder, to Australia to lend his expertise honed in the North Pacific against the Soviet whaling fleet.

They opened the campaign in Albany on August 28, 1977. A few days later Jonny and Jean-Paul trailed one of three whale chasers, the Cheynes II, captained by Kase Van Der Gaag, across the Southern Ocean.

“That was an historic day,” Jonny said. “It was the first time anyone had kept one-third of the Australian whaling fleet from its work.”

The campaign ran for several weeks with Jonny, Jean-Paul, Bob Hunter and others taking the Zodiacs out up to 30 nautical miles to act as human shields for the sperm whales. There were two close calls with harpoons but no injuries.

“It’s incredible that we consistently went out so far to sea,” Jonny said later. “It felt, looking over the Sound and beyond, overwhelmingly beautiful and dangerous.”

Jonny returned to Albany in November 2007 to attend an event at Middleton Beach. Jonny stood with Kase Van Der Gaag and Paddy Hart, Australia’s remaining former whaling ship captains, to protest Japan’s plans to take 50 humpback whales.

For Jonny the return to Albany was about meeting Kase. “Kase is deep and feels deeply. I also sense his sadness. It’s everyone’s sadness, a kind of ‘life’ sadness about what we’ve done to the planet, the whales and one another.”

Kase left whaling soon after Jonny and his friends ended their direct action campaign in 1977. He worked in the north west of Western Australia on tug boats. Today Kase speaks against whaling. “I owe it to the whales, the whales I killed.”

Today Kase feels like he’s in the presence of God when he sees a whale.

Jonny: “If only the Japanese whalers had similar feelings.”

For Kase the argument against whaling isn’t about numbers. It doesn’t matter that there may or may not be thousands of whales in the ocean. It’s the inhumanity. Kase: “There’s no such thing as a clean kill. They die hard.”

Jonny was taken with Albany and its current day green outlook. I took him to the old whaling station, now called Whale World, which closed in November 1978, where we met writer Tim Winton for a photographic session with The Australian newspaper. On the way back to town we stopped at the wind farm and then the headland to take in King George Sound.

“The town has this ‘brasserie’ feel, sophisticated eating and drinking,” Jonny said. “I felt proud of our accomplishments all those years ago. Thirty years ago I remember slinking along through Albany. Not so to-day.”

Jonny loved the wind farm built in 2001 to supply 75% of the city’s power. Jonny’s friend, Tom Barber, who had two close calls with harpoons in 1977, went on to build the world’s first commercial wind farm in California. I took a photo of Jonny to send to Two Harpoon Tom in the USA.

Steve Pontin, local writer and marketing guru for the city council, later sent Jonny photographs of dolphins at play at Sand Patch near Albany. Jonny: “They are my greatest souvenir. Dolphins are the reason I became interested in whales before we went to Albany in 1977.”

© Copyright 2007 Chris Pash. All Rights Reserved.

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