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A whale of a trip for a newborn

Story & photo Mary Gardner

‘Today gave me the opportunity to see that collective voice in action.’ – Paul Watson, Global Action Day, 23 May 2012.

Passersby smiled quizzically at the group outside the Byron Bay library: preschoolers, librarians and parents. This week’s storytime group was standing in a line in the sunshine. Each waved one hand holding a bright bit of cloth tied to a central plaited rope which they held up with their other hand. They were all humming. As the storyteller, snapping a photo, I could explain. This was a collective imagination game. The little group with their props and song was pretending to be a four-metre baby whale. It was just born from the mother as big as a library building and was taking its first breath at the surface of the sea.

The 2012 humpback whale migration is already under way with the first confirmed sighting at Byron Bay on March 25. The majority of whales are seen moving up the East Coast during June and July. After summer months spent in collective feasting on krill in the Antarctic, pregnant whales and female adults are now heading to secret calving places off the coast of Queensland. They teach their yearlings about the route.

A solitary adult male may be a ‘primary escort’. Although other males may jostle and battle hard for that position during the ‘heat run’, the female appears to favour a single one. This was filmed in 2009. Romancing pairs spending hours in foreplay have been photographed in 2010. Mating is still left to our imagination as no humans have filmed this. The writer D H Lawrence famously depicted what must be a mighty coupling in his poem ‘Whales Weep Not’ published after World War 1.

Philip Hoare in his prizewinning 2009 book Leviathan points out that the first underwater film of a living whale was only made in 1984. Before then, we might have imagined what whales were like from what we learned hunting and butchering them in their millions. But in the centuries of our quest for these living sources of oil, we were distracted.

In 1971, Roger Payne and Scott McVay first investigated what sailors heard for generations: the song of humpback whales. The males are heard underwater for fifty to a hundred miles. The songs vary from place to place and year to year. They are not the only species sounding. Sperm whale vocalisations are heard over a thousand miles.

In 2009–10, a new generation of researchers like Hal Whitehead and Chris Clark mapped the bioacoustic world of different species of whales and correlated this with behaviour. Whitehead explains that the sonar abilities of sperm whales could be lethal but are not. Does this suggest they exercise deliberate restraint and make moral decisions?

Clark found noises from ships concentrated in shipping lanes destroy up to 80 per cent of the underwater soundscape on which whales rely. They lose touch with each other. Aren’t they in mortal danger as their social fabric, once destroyed by harpoons, is again ripped apart by noise?

Since 1960, both military and international oil companies blitz the seas with sonar of every frequency as well as deep underwater explosions. In the past dozen years their use has intensified. Imagine living inside a never-ending rock concert, with sounds over 115 decibels and across every frequency. Now dead whales show badly damaged inner ears. What is life like for deaf whales?

The whales pass Cape Byron, dodging our set nets, ships, noise, dredging spoils and pollution. Could we support a renaissance of whale culture? Say, switch from oil to renewable energy? Isn’t that child’s play?


One response to “A whale of a trip for a newborn”

  1. Kamakarzi says:

    What a wonderful article but Im also saddened by the thought that as these whale mothers are moving up the coast, are going to have to be careful of the increase in very large coal and gas cargo ships. The shipping lanes are increasing in there numbers, and the numbers of ship movements is something that minister for the Environment
    Tony Burke should take a very long and hard look at. Shipping should be limited in these times to certain lanes or times but something has to be done. Look at it this way how would you like it if your pregnant wife was on the other side of the road to the hospital and had a wall in-between that moved with little or no chance of you getting her there in time or her being killed on the way. We love our whales and we have names for them, they belong and have been doing this for thousands of years why just because of an economic reason do they have to suffer. Article about this on front page SMH May 14th

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