(FIRST POSTED Monday, November 5, 2007)
Novelist and ocean activist Tim Winton credits his school days in Albany during the last days of whaling as deeply influential to both his work as a writer and environmentalist. His second novel, Shallows (1984) winner of the Miles Franklin Award, deals with the confrontation between whalers and conservationists on the high seas.
Tim Winton penned the following when he heard of an historic meeting between two of the main protagonists in the last days of Australian whaling. In 1977 Jonny Lewis and Kase Van Der Gaag duelled on the southern ocean, Jonny a protester in a tiny inflatable, Kase the skipper of a whale chaser. Both meet in Albany on November 3, 2007, in opposition to the resumption of whaling and the coming hunt by the Japanese fleet of humpback whales.
Nowadays whales and dolphins retain a commercial value as live tourist attractions. They grace almost every tourism poster and pamphlet and website, becoming an alternate coat of arms to WA in particular, along with the whaleshark. They are the basis of a sustainable industry — eco-tourism — whose contribution to our economy is considerable. They help keep small coastal communities alive — even towns like Albany, that once thrived on their slaughter.
Beyond economics, though, whales have accrued an even greater worth, something less tangible than a dollar figure. Their cultural value might be much harder to quantify, but anyone who under-estimates its does so at their own peril. In thirty years whales have become emblematic. Ordinary Western Australians are passionate about whales.
For many coastal Western Australians the annual migration of humpbacks and southern right whales helps define the passing of seasons. The glimpses we snatch of them spouting and leaping and resting in bays and coves have become a kind of reassurance, for the more urbanised we become the more we treasure enduring instances of wildness. And the more educated we become about ecology (even if our learning reveals how little we really know) the more seriously we take our mega-fauna. You might say that whales in particular have taught us a little humility in this regard.
When so many marine species and habitats are in serious trouble, the slow recovery of the humpback from the very brink of extinction has given us hope. The fact that they still exist has come to stand as a signal of our own cultural evolution, because we know that if we had not changed our attitudes to whaling a generation ago, and if the majority of nations had not changed alongside us, then there would be as little to see out there on the water as there was when I was a boy, when the only whales you’d glimpse were being sawn up and boiled. If we hadn’t progressed in our thinking since the 1970s, there’d likely be no passing whales at all. No whaling industry. No whale-watching. No whales, full stop.
On a recent trip to the Albany region I saw more live whales in a week than I ever saw in all my high school years living, diving and surfing there. This time I wasn’t even looking for them; they were visually and ambiently unavoidable, and I can’t tell you how good it felt. At a grim time in history it renewed my awe of these great creatures’ resilience, but it also restored my faith in the nobler side of human nature.
But nearly three decades on from the cessation of whaling in our waters, it’s a shock to realize that humpbacks are not secure in our southern or western waters. Most of us have assumed that this is a battle that has been fought and won. But the price of victory, it seems, is indeed, eternal vigilance. While most nations have moved on, a few have not. Some have been steadily regrouping and retooling for commercial slaughter.
Australian governments and NGOs have been at the forefront of this necessary vigilance. Many diplomatic efforts have been made to bring recalcitrant whalers into the fold. Politicians, public servants and activists have done a lot of good work in good faith. But with limited results. Despite a welter of procedure and process and protocol, whaling activity has increased.
In the effort to curtail this renewed slaughter it seems that two crucial avenues have not been fully investigated. Legal action, and direct action. Given the political and cultural sensitivities involved, neither of these is anybody’s idea of the first and best way to solve the problem, but after the failure of all diplomatic and procedural efforts, there seems to be no alternative left.
There is still no humane way to kill a whale.
There is still no sustainable model for a humane whaling industry.
Whaling belongs to an era when issues of sustainability and humane methods had no meaning. That era has passed and it will not be mourned.
This week’s (November 3, 2007) meeting of two old foes, Jonny Lewis and Kase Van der Gaag, symbolises just how far we’ve travelled as a community. It also says a lot about the town of Albany and how it has moved on. Jonny and Kase were both players in an end-game that helped define our contemporary view of marine stewardship and our sense of interdependence with nature. Their reunion is something to celebrate because, despite all odds, it marks a kind of social progress and cultural unity that none of us could have predicted a generation ago. No doubt these two blokes will have stories to tell and a few old scores to settle. The rest of us can only watch on with some pride and a little amusement and take the opportunity to renew our determination to see whaling ended in our waters for all time.
I am happy to add my voice to the throng of ordinary Australians demanding that our Government take all steps necessary to secure the safety of whales in our waters. I applaud IFAW‘s efforts in bringing this before the public, and urge coastal communities to support their initiatives. AMCS (Australian Marine Conservation Society), whose logo is the humpback, wishes IFAW every success in this endeavour.
I also extend my thanks and support to those who undertake peaceful direct action to thwart whaling in our territorial waters in the absence of Government initiative.
Tim Winton is Patron of the Australian Marine Conservation Society