Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Whale Stranding

Hamelin Bay on Western Australia's south coast has be one of the most beautiful places in the world. It's a sheltered bay with white sand so brilliant it dazzles. By the beach the water is literally as clear as glass slowly changing through palest aqua to turquoise as you go out into the ocean. It's a pleasant holiday spot with good swimming and fishing, close to the tourist region of Margaret River, well known for its vineyards, caves and surf, and the Leeuwin Naturaliste National Park.

This tranquil place was the site where more than eighty long finned pilot whales and a dolphin were reported to have beached themselves on Monday. Only twenty five whales were still alive when they were discovered so they had been there for some time. A frantic rescue effort was put in motion with people coming from as far away as Perth to try to keep the survivors alive. Trenches were dug around them to help support their body weight and volunteers worked through the night, wrapping them in wet towels and dousing them with buckets of water.

It was decided to move them a few kilometers along the coast to a bay with deeper water to lessen the likelihood of them beaching again. Sadly by then, despite the best efforts of the vets and volunteers, only eleven were still alive and eventually only ten of those were successfully released. Reports have just come in that a number of dead whales have been sighted off the coast. Let's hope that they are incorrect.

Situations like this, and the human response to it, are what gives me hope for our species. While Japanese whalers are hunting and killing whales in Antarctic waters (claiming scientific research as the reason) Australians are working together to save other whales. Instead of killing whales more useful scientific research might be to try and find out just why whales beach themselves and where they fit into the network of species vital to the ecology of our planet, the one we are all part of.

I understand that there are cultures that have used whale products to enable them to survive for centuries and, although I don't see the need for it in the present day, I'm willing to accept that this is a customary right but I see no other reason for killing them.

I visited the Cheynes Beach Whaling Station near Albany in Western Australia shortly before it closed in 1978. A whale was being flensed at the time and I was overwhelmed by the size and stench, so much so that I had to leave. As I stood outside looking over the bay, another whale carcass was being hauled off a whale chaser, armed with a harpoon gun at its prow. The water was alive with big, shadowy shapes, that I presume were sharks drawn by the blood from the whale. I have not felt comfortable about the killing of whales since and my distaste increased when I discovered that a harpoon does not always kill instantly as the tour guide implied.

Perhaps there was a time in human history when such killing might have been justified by need but that time is long past. Looking at the photos of the people working so hard to save the whales at Hamelin Bay I have to say I hope the few remaining whaling nations will realise this and soon.

You can see photos of the rescue attempt here

Edit: Sadly, six of the released whales have again beached themselves, this time in an isolated and difficult to reach area, and died.

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