WORDS & IMAGES: MARIE BARBIERI
Whale watching in Fowlers Bay, South Australia
Tails from the Nullarbor
Whale watching occurs every year in the warmth and safety of the Great Australian Bight – drawing scores of endangered southern right whales. Witnessing them frolic and nurse close-up is truly breathtaking.
The almost glass-flat bay ebbs languidly, subtly warmed by the late winter sun. With only a tickle of a breeze, it’s a perfect day for whale watching. I sit patiently—lens poised—on the 28 passenger-carrying ‘Asherah’ in Fowlers Bay, South Australia.
Between May and October, southern right whales migrate to the Head of Bight to mate, calve and nurse. Little more than sand dunes, saltbush and bluebush inhabit this pristine section of the Nullarbor. It’s flanked by the 100km-long Bunda Cliffs: a blunt wedge of 90 metre-high limestone on the edge of the continent.
2016 whale watching season
Southern rights reached near extinction in the 1930s due to whaling. But to the delight of conservationists, 2016 has seen the largest number of calves born in the Bight since records began. Researchers from Curtin University have spotted 170 whales this season.
Asherah’s skipper, Rod, points ahead to a mother and calf. “She has a three week-old boy,” he says, “and they’re here every day.”
There’s no breaching today, but we’re treated to pec-slaps, tail-lops and spy-hops by mum, revealing her horny white callosities. And bub practices a belly-up roll.
We then listen in on the hydrophone, mesmerised by the eerie subaqueous moans. “And every day is different,” says Simone, Rod’s partner, reading the emotion on our faces. “Yesterday we spotted 26 southern rights, as well as a humpback. And last week, we spotted white-bellied sea eagles and a grey-headed albatross!”
Rod and Simone have been collaborating with the Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study program, dropping sound loggers into Fowlers Bay. In its fourth year, the study’s acoustic data assists with whale conservation.
Says, Rod: “Our Fowlers Bay Eco Tours are committed to raising awareness of our coastline and its marine life. We also conduct education programs for South Australian schools.”
Returning via Fowlers Point, we spot colonies of Australian sea lions and New Zealand fur seals basking on nature’s sun loungers. It’s a reminder of the necessity to leave wildlife to its own devices.
Responsible whale watching
The 1999 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act stipulates government requirements on the distance to be kept between vessels and cetaceans. Always check a tour operator’s eco credentials when booking whale watching experiences. South Australian law requires vessels to keep a distance of 300m; Federal law required 100m). For further reference:
www.environment.gov. au/marine/marine-species/ cetaceans/whale-and-dolphin- watching
www.environment.sa.gov. au/marineparks/enjoy/whale- watching
Sea Shepherd’s vessel, Steve Irwin, visited the Head of Bight in August 2016. During its campaign, crew shot documentary footage of the pristine region to campaign for its World Heritage-recognition. Operation Jeedara, organised by Sea Shepherd, aims to prevent BP from drilling in the Bight. Jeedara was named by Mirning elder, Bunna Lawrie (also known as ‘the whale song man’). He stated: “The Great Australian Bight is the greatest whale nursery on this planet… and the whale story, where I come from, is my university.” Also on-board, was former Greens leader: Bob Brown. For more: www.seashepherd.org.au/jeedara
Images courtesy © Marie Barbieri
Marie is a freelance writer and photographer. She left her native UK eight years ago for the red soils of Australia. Happy as a wombat in dust, she loves the Outback, indigenous culture, getting sandy and salty, keeping fit, and eating her way through chocolate café menus! A winner and finalist in travel competitions, Marie now lives in Adelaide, and adores its festival vibe.
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